Sermon at the Funeral of Pastor Richard Gahl
Editor’s Note: Pastor Richard Gahl was a longtime participant in Daystar. He was the author of “Diakonia” and “Listening,” which are available elsewhere in The Daystar Journal.
A native of Chicago, Pr. Gahl attended Lutheran schools and graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1965. After serving as a pastor to LCMS congregations in Indiana and Pennsylvania, he was called to serve as the Executive Director of the Ohio District of the LCMS, a position he held for nearly twenty-five years. He retired in 2004 but continued to serve as a volunteer in various ways. He died on May 14, 2021.
The following sermon was proclaimed at the funeral service for Pastor Gahl. The preacher was Rev. Jerome (“Jerry”) Burce, whose roots are also in the LCMS. Pastor Gahl’s family has given permission to publish Pastor Burce’s sermon here. We are grateful to Pastor Burce and the Gahl family for allowing us to publish this sermon.
Sermon at the Funeral of Richard Gahl
May 19, 2021
at Messiah Lutheran Church
Fairview Park, Ohio
Text: John 20:19-23, ref. Isaiah 50:1ff., Romans 8:31ff.
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Rise, shine, you people, Christ our Lord has entered
Our human story, God in him is centered.
He comes to us, by death and sin surrounded,
with grace unbounded.
The Holy Gospel according to St. John:
9When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Come, celebrate, your banners high unfurling,
Your songs and prayers against the darkness hurling.
To all the world go out and tell the story
of Jesus’ glory.
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+ In Nomine Jesu +
Here’s what God Almighty wants all of us to remember first and last today: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Our brother, Richard Gahl, was a baseball fan. Diehard, I’m told. He played the game himself when he was young. He made both his junior and senior college teams, and his seminary team too. That’s seven years of post-high school baseball. He was proud of that. He got started as a boy, of course. I understand he once hit a ball that come within a hair of breaking the big rose window of the Lutheran church in Chicago where his dad was the pastor. Now there’s a conversation you wouldn’t want to have. It’s the kind of escape a boy never forgets.
Speaking of conversations, I wonder if you noticed the one that didn’t happen in the passage I read you just now. By rights it should have happened. By all the rules that God lays down to keep our world more or less together, it ought to have happened.
In this world—this “real” world, as we insist on calling it—here’s how it works. If you break the big rose window in your dad’s church, your dad has to call you in for “the conversation.” The terrible conversation. The one that opens with the pain of seeing all that disappointment in your father’s eyes and ends with the punishment that the elders of the church will absolutely insist on, and all the more if they think the preacher goes too easy on his kids.
Here too is how it works in the world—this “real” world of sin and betrayal we were all born into: if in this world you funk out on your best friend ever; if in his hour of need you suddenly disappear; if, when asked, you swear up and down that you never saw him in your life; if then you sneak into the crowd to watch him die the worst death ever, knowing in your heart of hearts that you never believed him for a moment when he babbled on with all that crazy talk about rising from the dead—
Again, if this is you, then you better be right about your friend talking crazy. Because if you’re not; if somewhere, somehow the iron law of the universe gets broken, and the impossible happens, and this dead friend of yours is on his feet again, then you better hope against hope that he doesn’t track you down. Because if he does, you’re in for the conversation that nightmares are made of, a super-charged version of the one that happens all the time between husbands and wives when one betrays the other. Again, it has to happen. It’s how the world works. The rules that run the world insist on it. Thou shalt not dump a friend. Or in this case—this particular case—thou shalt not give up on the Lord your God and expect to get away with it.
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So on that Easter night when the moment for the nightmare conversation is suddenly upon them, what is it that Peter hears, and the other wretches hear it too?
“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Then he shows them his hands and feet—no, not to make them feel bad, but rather to underscore why he has the right to skip “the conversation” and go straight to what he just said. Again he says it: “Peace be with you.” And in those words is the sound of another iron law of the universe being shattered into pieces. It’s the sound of God rolling up God’s sleeves to make a brand new world for all of us, a world he long ago promised to make—an Easter world, as we might call it; and in it everything is new and right and good forever.
This is the world that Richard Gahl was baptized into in 1939. You and I are in too, each of us with the mark of Christ, our Lord and friend, branded on our foreheads. Not that we see the mark. Not that any of us find it all that easy to keep believing that Easter happened, or still less, to act and behave in our everyday lives as if this Easter world was really a thing unfolding around us already today. How can it be, we say, when someone we treasure lies in a coffin?
“Peace be with you,” Jesus says; and yes, he says it this very afternoon, this time looking straight at us, skipping straight past the conversation I deserve, and you deserve it too. “Remember my hands, my feet,” he says. “I know about coffins. I know the way out. I have Richard in my Easter plans. I have him in my Easter keeping—and all of you are there as well.
“Trust me,” Jesus says, “Trust God too,” he adds.
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Addressing Dick’s granddaughters: A____, M____, I hope you don’t mind if I talk just to you for a moment. I want to tell you a little about your grandfather.
You know, of course, that he was a pastor. Here’s something you may not know. Your grandpa was a pastor that a lot of other pastors respected very highly. For one thing he was smart. Very smart. He knew a lot of things that other pastors struggle with. He was organized. He was generous with his time. He gave good advice. One of his specialties was helping other pastors talk about money, and to do it without being obnoxious. That’s one of the jobs every pastor has to do because, without money, you can’t keep a church open or doing what God wants churches to do. A lot of pastors don’t do this very well. Your grandpa spent a lot of his time helping them do it better. He also helped them understand how churches work, and he was very good at helping churches make sensible plans for next year, and for the year after.
Your grandpa was a big help to me at this church. He was someone I would go to when I needed advice. I also really enjoyed sitting down with him and a handful of other pastors—some of them are here today—to study the Bible and think about our job as preachers. Your grandpa was always worth listening to. We learned a lot from him. We’re very sorry he won’t be with us the next time we get together.
But here’s the thing we appreciated about your grandpa more than anything else. He was serious about Easter. He was especially serious about the second half of this little Easter episode we listened to just now. That’s where Jesus looks at his disciples and he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Now your grandpa was forced to learn some Latin when he went to school. So he knew that the word “send” is “mitto” in Latin, and from that Latin word comes the English word “mission.” This, by the way, is the sort of thing your grandpa really enjoyed thinking about. Though what really matters here is here is how serious he was in the thinking he did.
Here’s how he would say it to us other pastors. Wake up. Listen to Jesus. He’s talking to you, and not just to you, but the churches you serve. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is the mission text, your grandpa would say. It defines our job. We are not here to huddle together in locked rooms because we’re afraid of the bad guys out there who don’t believe in Jesus. We’re not allowed to keep the gift of Easter to ourselves as we sit around and wait to go to heaven.
Over the years your grandpa ran across a lot of pastors and churches that seemed to be doing that. He told me once about a pastor who insisted on doing it. “We’re here for ourselves, not for our neighborhood.” That’s what the pastor apparently said. I don’t think I ever heard your grandpa more upset than when he told this story. Every church is a “mission outpost.” That was your grandpa’s favorite line when he talked to other pastors; and he said it again and again to a lot of churches too. He wrote essays about it for the other pastors to read.
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And with that, let me turn my attention again to everyone else in the room.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Our brother, Dick Gahl was right. He nailed it cold. There is no Easter faith—no genuine Easter faith—in the absence of Easter mission.
And on the flip side, the sign of signs of Easter reality percolating in the world today is the sight of Jesus-trusting people spreading the goodies around, the way he sends them to do; the way the Father sent him to do. What you see, as in a glass darkly to borrow from Paul, are people stepping day after day, year upon year into a world “by death and sin surrounded” as the hymn verse puts it; as Jesus was himself. And what they bring to the world in Jesus’ name, on his authority, is “grace unbounded.”
That’s what makes us the light of the world; the city set on a hill that can’t be hid. That’s why God settled on us, in Christ Jesus, to be his chosen set of descendants, his royal priesthood, his holy nation, his particular people. We have a job to do, St. Peter says—Peter thinking back on the overwhelming joy of that first Easter night when “the conversation” didn’t happen, and what he heard instead was “Peace be with you.”
What is this job, says Peter? To declare the mighty works–the utter excellence, of the One who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light. The one he’s talking about here is Jesus, of course.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says. That’s the power of God to believe Jesus, and then to do what Jesus is telling us to do. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven”—and then, to read literally from the Greek, “if you hang onto them, they are hung onto”; and here it’s up in the air what you’re hanging onto. Is it the sins you’re holding against somebody or the sinners you’re refusing to let go of? I know what the translations say. But is that what Jesus is saying? His own example on Easter night suggests that he’s lot more interested in the sinners than he is in the sins. Truth be told, he dealt with the sins. He turned them into a non-issue. That what those holes in his hands and feet are all about. So again, notice how he skips “the conversation” and cuts straight to the Easter point. “Peace be with you.”
Peace be with you in Jesus’ name. Peace with God beyond all understanding. That’s the Easter message. Yes, it gets passed around within congregations as it should be; but it’s also there to be passed around in the streets, the neighborhoods, the jails, the homeless shelters. You can see the bubbling of Easter reality in those history book stories of crazy British boys riding across the English channel in flimsy boats to bring the promise of Christ to the likes of my own brutal ancestors in the swamps and forests of northern Europe. If you have eyes that see, you can catch the sprouts of Easter reality in the work of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry that Dick invested so deeply in. You can spot it as well in the unexpected kindness that baptized people sometimes show to people they don’t know and who plainly don’t deserve it—not by the rules the world runs by.
One way to spot Easter reality is by charting the growth of Christian understanding about who all gets to be forgiven and received as a genuine sister or brother in Christ, no strings attached. You could see this growth in Dick himself—and yes, he caught some flak for it, as always happens. It’s one of the reasons he spent his final years as an unofficial pastor, no longer on the roster of any rule-bound church. He regretted that. His Lord will look him in the eye one day and tell him to shrug it off. “Look at me,” he’ll say. “I sent. You went. Well done, you good and faithful servant.”
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As for us, let’s honor our Lord and his servant by taking to heart that hymn we sang: “Come celebrate, your banners high unfurling / your songs and prayers against the darkness hurling. / To all the world go out and tell the story / of Jesus’ glory.”
I thank God today for Richard William Gahl who pushed us all to do just that. I will take it for granted that you do too.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
One thought on “Sermon at the Funeral of Pastor Richard Gahl”
Many thanks for a bright hope- filled sermon for my dear friend Dick Gahl. We were distant cousins ( going back 3 or 4 generations) & played baseball together in the outfield at Concordia Sr College in Ft Wayne & against each other at 2 different Chicago Lutheran high schools. I still plan to cross the heavenly home plate. Dick beat me to it.