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Jul 23, 2017

Don Bitsberger Memorial

Passage: Luke 24:13-35

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

Series: Archival

Category: Funerals


Sermon delivered at the funeral of the Rev. Don Bitsberger at St. Patrick's on July 23, 2017.


Welcome to St. Patrick’s for this service celebrating the life of the Rev. Donald Bitsberger. And thank you to the Rev. Dr. Michael Morgan for assisting today at this service. Michael was Don’s assistant when he was the Rector of Church of the Redeemer in Chesnut Hill, MA.

Don was a planner and he had a clear idea about what he wanted this service to be about. He wanted it to be about the resurrection. It is a little daunting to think that I should offer words about the resurrection on his behalf being that he was a long-time student of the resurrection. Don was a man of great accomplishment. You can know this by reading his obituary.  You can know this by hearing the reflections offered about Don’s amazing influence on the things he considered important. You can see it in his wife Diane and his children Martha and Tim and his grandchildren. All of whom he loved with his entire being. But these things cannot encapsulate the depth of a person’s life, and that is certainly true for Don’s life.

For instance, one of the distinctions not mentioned was his role as chaplain of the self-named Senile Sinners, a group of men from St. Patrick’s who share lunch at the Irish Inn once a month. Their one rule: Don’t talk about health and medical procedures. Seeing Don at one of those lunches was to see someone experiencing joy. Even when challenged by mobility, Don was there. It was a place where he could listen and share with people who made him happy. And groups like that are what Don relied on the church to provide. Church was a place for relationships, about offering gifts and talents to something greater than one self. And for Don, church was a key focal point of his life as it had been for most of his 89 years.

In my first month at St. Patrick’s, Don took me to lunch at the Cactus Cantina. He told me his story and offered me his support. And that support never wavered. And for that, I am eternally thankful.

One of the things Don offered to this parish was Bits of Bible. A class offered on Sunday mornings here at St. Patrick’s. He taught it for years and he had a cult following. Let me tell you a little about his disciples. There were some who were experts in the Bible. The late David Lambert comes to mind.  Now there were others, Charlie Johnson to name one, who were less learned. All would agree that Don could have relied on his store of knowledge and years of experience to make the class a success. But his love of teaching, learning and the Bible and theology led him to read the newest scholarship and prepare for each class with considerable time at the seminary library. A couple of days before, he sent an email with attached reading. And he moved through some very sophisticated material and his students loved every moment of it.

I tell you these things to let you know how important Don Bitsberger was to this congregation. He was a leader, he was a pastor, he was a friend. He also was interested in communicating with people, those he knew and strangers.

As I mentioned, Don wanted the theme of this service to be resurrection. So, it is appropriate that we are gathered here on a Sunday afternoon (the day of the resurrection) and that we heard the gospel he chose for this service. The resurrection appearance on the Road to Emmaus.

The story begins with two unknown disciples travelling on a footpath between Jerusalem and Emmaus on Easter Day. That morning, they had heard rumors of resurrection, but they were not convinced. All they knew was that the tomb was empty and that two women, who like them were disciples, claimed to have seen an angel. So, as they traveled together on that Emmaus Road, they wondered what they might do next. We don’t know, but we expect that they had given up on their calling, that is, to follow Jesus. They had seen him nailed to the cross, they witnessed the scourging and possibly even witnessed him take his last breath. And for all they knew, Jesus was gone, his body stolen, and everything hoped for, lost. With all the events happening in Jerusalem earlier that day and in the days preceding, it is not clear why they journeyed to Emmaus.

Were they going home, or trying to find work, were they in search of safe refuge from religious persecution, or was it an escape from the overwhelming despair of the preceding days? We don’t know the answer to that question and we don’t know why Jesus chose to appear to them.

What we do know is that the two disciples are so consumed with their own grief, sadness; their own needs, that they fail to recognize Jesus. Jesus spends the entire day walking with them and telling them the story of God and yet they don’t know it is him until Jesus breaks bread.

The power of this story, after 2000 years, and why I think Don chose it for this service is that it reminds us that Jesus appears in the most unlikely places, in the conversations we have with strangers, or with someone who isn’t part of our group. The power of this story is to know that Jesus is resurrected and that we can come to know this, we can experience the resurrection, by paying attention to the people we encounter along the paths of our lives. It is so often the case that we march through life listening only to ourselves, judging other’s motives, thinking about the ways that we can be safe and not engaging the love of Christ that infuses all people.

Don experienced the resurrection, he heard Jesus’ call and he followed it. And as Paul, one of Don’s favorites, said, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8.38-39)

On this day, we celebrate the life of Don Bitsberger and we also celebrate his glory. Because Don continues to live, not only in our hearts, but in the very fiber of our being and in the Kingdom of God. Don’s love for all of us is tied up with the love of God and that means that it will continue to be known forever.

So, pay attention to the people you encounter on the way. Don’t get so wrapped up in your own fears and your desires but instead think about our interconnectedness with God. We are all one family united together in God’s inseparable love. I do believe that is the way Don walked in the resurrection and we can carry that forward from this place.