The Rev. Dr. Charles Bergstrom served as the Executive Director of the Office for Governmental Affairs for the Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. (1977-1988) and as Senior Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester (1963-1977). He died on Friday, March 2, 2018. I presided and preached at his funeral held at Trinity on Friday, March 9, 2018.
Funeral Sermon + The Rev. Dr. Charles V. Bergstrom
Friday, March 9, 2018
The Rev. Nathan D. Pipho + Trinity, Worcester
Gail and Dan, Paul and Mary … Jessie, Eric, Brian, Cheryl … Chuck’s family and friends … colleagues … members of Trinity Church … Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Almost three years ago I announced to my parish in Quincy (Good Shepherd, North Quincy) that I would be leaving that call in order to become a full-time student in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Some of my parishioners were confused by that decision. Some thought I was leaving the ministry. One parishioner even asked me accusingly: are you a pastor or a politician?
A retired pastor of the congregation, however, had a different reaction. With a clarity gained from his years of experience in the Church … He said to me … “Oh, so you’re going to be like Chuck Bergstrom – and be our advocate in Washington D.C.”
That retired pastor was Cal Johnson. I learned this week that Pastor Johnson and his wife Audrey were friends of Pastor Bergstrom and Lois.
As one who shares Chucks passion for exploring the intersection between faith and politics, and, as one who shares with Chuck a call to serve as pastor in this place, it is an honor and privilege to preach and preside at Pastor Bergstrom’s funeral today.
As outlined in his obituary … Pastor Bergstrom held several leaderships positions in the Lutheran Church and in the ecumenical church. He made the rounds on national television shows (including Face the Nation, the MacNeil-Leher News Hour, The Oprah Winfrey Show) and on local cable shows. He was an author, a leader, a public witness – he was known by important political, ecumenical, and entertainment figures in the world.
And while these accomplishments and relationships are impressive, I also really like the story Dan told of Pastor Bergstrom getting kicked out of a Trinity Basketball Game at the YMCA for yelling at the referees. I also learned, just last night, that he didn’t just find that passion for sports here in Worcester. When he was a pastor at Bethesda Lutheran Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, before coming to Worcester, I heard that he often yelled so loudly at the referees on Saturday night, that he barely had a voice left to preach on Sunday morning.
Pastor Bergstrom was full of passion and conviction. He was not afraid to speak out and say what he felt and believed …whether to basketball referees in Massachusetts, or to Senators and Presidents in Washington, D.C.
As he spoke out in his public ministry, Pastor Bergstrom witnessed to the truth that ultimately, faith is not a private and personal enterprise. A life of faith is not focused on “me and Jesus.” Nor, is its sole devotion a personal “getting right with the Lord.”
As the first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom remarked in his letter of condolences to the family read in our service today, Pastor Bergstrom’s ministry was grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which led to a strong commitment to justice for those on the margins of society.
Pastor Bergstrom’s witness, is that to follow Jesus, is to follow Jesus into the world, and to make it a better place, especially for those in the shadows of life. To follow Jesus, is not to follow Jesus into isolation – becoming some pious separatist who leaves the world to its own devices.
Rather, living as a disciple of Jesus is to follow Jesus into active engagement as a citizen, into the neighborhood association and into the voting booth, onto city councils and school boards, into state and federal legislatures, and into Executive Offices at the city, state, and national levels.
To follow Jesus is the public witness that Christians, as an act of faith, actively and intentionally engage in the world to make it a better, safer, and healthier place for all people.
In Matthew 25, read as today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes the bold claim, that when we feed the hungry, when we give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we cloth the naked, when we care for the sick, and when we visit those in prison, we do these things to Christ himself! “Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40).
Pastor Bergstrom’s ministry witnessed to the truth that we serve Jesus not only through individual acts of charity, but also in how we as a society, in our policies and laws, and in the ways we organize our shared communal and civic life, ensure that all have enough food, that all have enough shelter, that all strangers are welcomed, that all prisoners are respected, that all who are sick are cared for.
Pastor Bergstrom was a strong advocate on school prayer. Interestingly, however, he suggested that prayer has no place in the classroom! That perhaps is a surprising position for a public advocate of the church. But, not surprising in terms of Matthew 25. In holding what was considered a controversial position, he was in fact welcoming the stranger! He was making sure that the child who didn’t share the faith of the majority wasn’t made to feel alienated, but was welcomed.
Christians do not participate in politics and government to hammer others into accepting a Christian view on things. Instead, we participate in civic life always guided first and foremost by loving and serving the neighbor. This work is not a distraction or a diversion from more important matters of faith, it flows directly out of our deep and abiding faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
At this point, a word of thanks to Chuck’s family. You shared him with this congregation and two others, and you shared him with the Lutheran Church in the United States. Pastors often put in long hours, and sometimes those long hours leave short hours for our families and loved ones. Thank you for your sacrifices that made Chuck’s public ministry possible. May God preserve your cherished memories of Chuck as husband, father, father-in-law, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
The scripture that Pastor Bergstrom choose for his funeral today, read by his grandson, Brian, as today’s second reading, were verses from the 1st and 3rd Chapters of Romans. Though it is the Apostle Paul writing these words, because he chose them for his funeral, we might hear Pastor Bergstrom himself professing his faith through these readings:
Romans 1:16 … “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation”
Romans 3:23-24 … “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Pastor Bergstrom was not ashamed of the gospel, it was both the power of God for salvation, and the power that compelled him in three calls to parish ministry in New England, and in his call as a public advocate in Washington D.C.
As he proclaimed the gospel – he was not proclaiming himself. Chuck knew he was a sinner. Even as he preached and taught and advocated, even as his public ministry was accomplished and noteworthy, he knew that as a sinner he still fell short of the glory of God. Chuck’s hope was not in himself. His hope was in justification by grace as a complete gift. His redemption was in Jesus Christ – the power of God for salvation.
And so it is today, that we commend Chuck to his merciful savior. The shadows have lengthened, evening has come, and his work is done. We commend him now back to the one who first gave him to us.
Joined to Christ’s death and resurrection in his baptism, we are bold now to commend Chuck into the eternal banquet that has no end. We release him now into resurrection life with Lois, life with his daughter Cheryl, life in all the communion of saints forever.
May that resurrection hope comfort and sustain you on this day, and all days.
Thanks be to God.