Sermon for Sunday, September 17, 2023   Sixteenth Sunday after  Pentecost

“New Creation Through the Waters”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa



Exodus 14:19-31: Click here to read the story for today.


Beloved People of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

It helps sometimes to go back to the beginning, to the very start of the story. In the beginning, there was only chaos. The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. Nothing could flourish or grow. Chaos is full of energy and creative potential, but when it has free reign, there isn’t room for life. That’s how things feel for each of us, for our world, sometimes – like chaos is taking up all the space, and there’s no chance to catch your breath before another wave hits. That’s how life in Pharaoh’s Egypt must have felt. That’s how it was in the beginning of everything, when chaos was uncontained.

Then God began to create.

God’s spirit, the mighty wind, moved over the waters.

God’s Spirit breathed over the chaos, making space for creation to move and breathe.

God created light when there was only darkness.

God divided water from water, putting each in its place.

God gathered the waters of the earth to reveal dry land.

God harnessed the power of chaos.

There was room for creation. Life could flourish in abundance, for a while at least.

Eventually, chaos runs amok again and again. This happens in Egypt under Pharaoh. His reign of terror, his greed and grasping, violence and pride, and his hardened heart unleash all the forces of chaos. Creation can’t flourish in such a place. There is no room to breathe, no space for life. God has promised to bless Israel, and through Israel, all the peoples of the earth. Pharaoh is threatening all of that.

So, God takes a stand for creation. God harnesses the power of chaos, hurling it against Pharaoh in the form of plagues until finally Pharaoh relents and lets the people go. Except, Pharaoh can’t actually let go of his grasping, warmongering, death dealing ways. He pursues the Israelites to the banks of the Red Sea. They’re caught between the Egyptians and the frightening, chaotic waters.

It’s time for God to recreate the world. God again makes light in the darkness, and once again separates the light from the darkness. God’s Spirit, the mighty wind-breath of God, begins to blow. By this fierce wind, God rearranges the sea, divides waters, and reveals dry land. The Exodus, the path out of slavery and into freedom, is a new creation. The waters are harnessed. They become walls to protect the people from the chaos and death of the sea. God makes a way, a space, for the people to begin to flourish again. God works through the creation – through Moses, through the sea and the dry land – to make abundant life possible again.

Yet this new beginning is also the end of an old order. Pharaoh leads his army to a watery grave.

This is a powerful, beautiful, troubling story, the stuff of legends and movies. It raises so many questions. It also helps us visualize how God works in our own lives. We all need new beginnings, time and again. Chaos runs amok within us. Like Pharaoh, we’re plagued by our own grasping and fear, violence and pride. Like the Israelites, we are not free. We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We need to be re-created over and over.

So, God brings us back to the beginning, again and again, back to the waters of baptism. In baptism, God again works through creation – through water and words and human beings – to make a new beginning. God’s Spirit moves over the waters to provide space for each of us to become a new creation as we are united to the death and resurrection of Jesus and made a part of the people of God. We enter the waters and our sinful selves are drowned, like Pharaoh’s army. We rise again. The Spirit enters us so that we can move and breathe in newness of life. A candle is lit, light for the darkness. Together, we move forward into freedom like the Israelites.

Throughout scripture, the Israelites often forget what God has done for them in the Exodus. God needed to remind them repeatedly: I led you through the waters and made you a new creation.

God knows we also need regular reminders of our baptism. There is so much chaos within and around us, voices telling us our worth depends on how well we compete, how much we can consume, forces that captivate us, that lead us to grasp and be grasped, fears and worries threaten to overwhelm us.

All those voices are drowned out by the baptismal declaration: Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. You are God’s beloved child. You are a new creation. God works through water and fire and words to remind us of this again and again. Our chaos is put in its place. We can breathe again. We can live as God’s people, trusting God is working through us to re-create and renew the face of the earth.

Now let’s join in a prayer from the service of Holy Baptism.

We give you thanks, O God, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life in which you took delight. Through the waters of the flood you delivered Noah and his family, and through the sea you led your people Israel from slavery into freedom. At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you. Pour out your Holy Spirit, the power of your living Word, that all who are washed in the waters of baptism may be given new life. To you be given honor and praise through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Sermon for Sunday, September 10, 2023   Fifthteenth Sunday after  Pentecost

“Focus on Form”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa


Exodus 12:1-14: Click here to read story for today.


Beloved People of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

These days I’m learning a lot from watching the eleven amazing Good Shepherd youth who run cross country. You inspired me again yesterday at the All-American meet. I’m also learning from an ultramarathoner. Usually, I’d question the sanity of anyone who willingly runs 100 miles at a time. Yet, this particular runner, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, is also a wise pastor, mother, and author of a beautiful book called Hope: A User’s Manual.

Many of Dana’s insights about hope come out of parenting a child struggling with severe depression. Others come from long runs that often feel to her like slogs through deep mud. In one chapter, she shares the wisdom that beginning runners tend to focus on the pain, intermediate runners often focus on the distance, advanced runners learn to focus on form.  In running and in life, Dana’s found that rather than fixating on what hurts, or how much farther she has to go, it’s best to stay focused on the things that help her keep moving through it all.

That resonates with me. When I ran cross country, I found it unhelpful when well meaning, kind people would cheer, you’re halfway there. What? I have to endure all that again?! My coach’s re- minder to lift up my head and move my arms – to focus on form – was much more helpful.

In our Old Testament story today, I hear a call to God’s people to focus on form.

The people are experiencing tremendous pain, enduring slavery under a murderous dictator. God’s working to set them free, but they have a long distance to travel, both physically and spiritually, before they can fully experience that freedom. Focusing on the pain or the distance could immobilize them. Instead, God gives them a form, a ritual, something concrete as a focus in this long, painful slog into freedom. God actually gives them this ritual to remember what’s happened, before it happens. Before God takes a final drastic action to set the people free, God tells them how to mark the Passover of the Lord, year after year. God gives them a form.

Maybe God knows the horror involved in setting them free could completely overwhelm them, as the firstborn children and animals of the Egyptians will all be killed. That is terrible. It raises all sorts of questions about God and suffering and how God brings justice in a world so marred by brokenness and injustice. It’s important to wrestle with such questions, but there’s much about God’s ways that is beyond our grasp, out of reach. In such times, rituals, forms, and practices can be incredibly helpful. They provide a container to acknowledge pain and what is incomprehensible in our world, and yet not fixate on it.

The Passover ritual includes eating bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery and questions to help ponder the great distance between our broken world and the life God longs for us all to know. Yet the main focus of Passover is on forms, ways of being, that will help the people move out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the promised land. They’re told to make sure everyone can participate. If a household is too small to afford its own lamb, it should join with another. Also, if a lamb is too expensive, you can use an older sheep or a goat. That is, include everyone. Divide the lamb in such a way that everyone gets some. That is, share. The whole congregation shall assemble. Community matters. Put the lamb’s blood on the doorpost of your homes as a sign for you. That is, remember what God has done for you. Be dressed and ready.

That is, keep moving through this all.

These forms, and this ritual, have sustained the Jewish people throughout the centuries. What forms and rituals sustain us as God’s people, as a congregation? In the face of climate change we could get overwhelmed, but our practices of caring for God’s creation and becoming carbon neutral have given us a way of being that helps. When COVID-19 hit and our building closed, nothing made sense, but practices and rituals provided a way through. We knew we needed to worship, so we moved to YouTube. We needed to care for each other, so we established a system of Shepherds and Flocks. We needed to serve others, so we supported the Decorah Mutual Aid Network. We needed the sacrament, so we did communion outside and together over Zoom.

These forms provided safe space where we could acknowledge the pain, acknowledge how far we have to go as a society, and yet not get overwhelmed. We could keep moving through it all together. Practices and rituals continue to do this for us as a congregation and as individuals. When things are hard and all you can feel is pain, when you don’t know how you’ll move through, the community prays and practices on your behalf. The rituals the community does carry you. At other times, your practice does the same for others.

Today we’re blessing Confirmation students. The whole process of Confirmation is about forms, practices, and rituals that help you, help us, move through life together as God’s people in helpful ways. You who take part in Confirmation all have struggles, you all have questions, we all do. In Confirmation class we acknowledge all of that. Faith in God doesn’t fix everything. It doesn’t provide all the answers. Instead, faith helps us to participate, together, in how God is working to free us all: to free us from fear, despair, isolation, greed, injustice, sin; free us from what gets in the way of the life God wants everyone to experience.

God has given us rituals to help us move through what’s hard and experience abundant life in the midst of it. It shall be “for you”, God says over and over in the Passover instructions. For you, we are told four times during our communion liturgy.

We have what we need to not get overwhelmed by pain or by how far we have to go.

We can look to what God is doing for you, for us.

We can participate in what God is doing to set us all free.


Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.




Sermon for Sunday, September 3, 2023, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sunday, September 3, 2023  
Fourteenth Sunday after  Pentecost
“Turn to Wonder”
Reverend Amy Zalk Larson
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  
Decorah, Iowa

Click here to read the story for today.

Beloved People of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

Imagine how the story of Moses and the burning bush might have gone if Moses was living in the 21st century. He’d probably have a smartphone because today even shepherds out “beyond the wilderness” have them. Which means, while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock, chances are he’d also be texting updates about the sheep, posting selfies of himself looking tough, and fol- lowing an online argument about some controversy in the world of shepherding. Chances are, he’d walk right by the burning bush and not get to hear God speak.

Notice, God didn’t start talking until Moses noticed the bush that was blazing yet not consumed and until Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” “When God saw that Moses has turned aside”, then God started talking.  If Moses hadn’t noticed the bush, if he hadn’t stopped and paid attention, he could’ve totally missed a powerful experience with God.

What do we miss when we’re so focused on our screens, our routines, our to-do lists, worries, wants? How often do we overlook God’s presence in our world? It seems God places a high value on paying attention. In this story alone, we’re told five times that God was attentive to the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. God observed, heard, knew, listened to, and saw their suffering.

Throughout scripture we see that God showers care and attention on our whole world all the time. But there’s so much that keeps us distracted and absorbed with ourselves. Even without a cell phone, so much could have gotten in the way for Moses. He could’ve been tired or hangry, fixated on tension with a family member, or completely overwhelmed by the painful events in his past. And even if he did notice the bush, he could have just kept on going rather than turning aside to look at it. He might’ve thought oof – I’ve been in the wilderness too long, my mind’s playing tricks on me. Or huh, that’s weird but gotta keep going or I’ll be late.

At any given moment there’s so much that can prevent us from looking beyond ourselves. Yet Moses noticed the bush and took time to turn and wonder about it. Because he did, Moses could see God, could see that God wanted to work through him to bring freedom and new life. God is still about freedom and new life. God wants that for you, for us, for the world. What helps you see that? What helps you to notice, turn, pay attention, wonder? In my life, sunsets often play that role. I still remember one particular one. I was studying in Zimbabwe during seminary, wrestling with the im- pacts of colonialism, when I got a call from home with the news that my dad had cancer.

That same day, my friends and I were headed out of the city for a trip to a beautiful mountainous area. I was in such a fog of worry that I hardly noticed the gorgeous scenery until the last evening when we were out on a drive. The high mountains had hidden the setting sun but then we came around a bend to a cliff and a clearing. The whole entire sky was full of color, rolling, swirling lay- ers of intense color from the horizon all the way to the heavens. I have never again seen a sky so alive. We pulled over on the side of the road, got out to watch, and sat in silence taking it in. The sunset lasted for another 30 minutes.

It was a burning bush experience for me. I was jolted awake to the presence of God. My eyes and my heart were opened. I began to pray, to bring my questions and pain to God again rather than staying stuck inside myself.  The sunset didn’t make everything all better of course, but it helped me see God amid the pain. It awakened in me a desire to be attentive and compassionate, and re- minded me that when things are difficult, I need to turn to prayer and turn to wonder. Still to this day, sunsets remind me to pause and pray.

The burning bush didn’t make things all better for Moses either. In fact, it made his life much harder. It was not a mountaintop, happy time for Moses. God’s call to go to Pharaoh and work for freedom, was a fairly unwelcome disruption of his everyday routine. Moses had many questions and concerns, but rather than getting stuck inside his own head, he turned to wonder and brought them to God. He was assured God would be with him in all that was to come.

Like Moses, we all encounter things that interfere with our lives, our plans, our routines. Sometimes they are beautiful – astonishing sights, times of great joy. Sometimes they’re painful – grief, unwelcome news, transitions. Sometimes they’re more mundane – annoying interruptions, or issues that make us uncomfortable. When we encounter disruptions of any kind, I think God is inviting us to pause and turn to wonder.

In the midst of lives that are full of surprises, joys, and trials, we always have the opportunity to pause and turn to wonder.  We can ask ourselves, “What is God doing here to bring life and hope, and how can I be part of it?” And even when you can’t do this, even when you are numb, in a fog, bored, tired, or hangry, God is always present for you, always working to get your attention to say,  I am here, I love you, I am working in and through and for you.

God is always present, always bringing life for you and for all creation.

Take a look. Amen.   

Sermon for Sunday, August 27, 2023   Thirteenth Sunday after  Pentecost

“Vision Correction”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read the story for today.


Beloved People of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.


The only time my blood pressure reading is high is at the eye doctor. Every other time it’s checked it’s really healthy; but it spikes when I’m in that chair anticipating what’s ahead. What’s the smallest row you can see? The top one? Better 1 or 2?  Neither. You have another prescription change, would you like to consider this $800 pair of eyeglasses while your eyes are dilated? My eyesight isn’t great to begin with, and I’m sure my anxiety about all things eye doctor makes it even worse.


Fear can make it hard to see clearly. That seems to be what’s happening for the new Pharaoh in our story today. I wonder if he feels anxious, if he’s maybe in over his head, not quite up to the task of governing a growing nation. We know this Pharaoh is lacking in at least one key regard, he doesn’t know his people’s history. He doesn’t know Joseph. It’s been over 400 years since Joseph and Joseph’s God helped Egypt survive a seven-year famine. There’s wisdom to be gained from knowing that story, from knowing about God who does some pretty great work when things look bleak. Yet, we’re told, this Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph.


Without such key wisdom and perspective, I imagine the work of governing feels daunting. Maybe things feel out of control and Pharaoh wants someone to blame. Whatever the reason, Pharaoh focuses on the Israelites. His gaze narrows. He fixates on these foreigners. He tries to control them.

Fear can lead us to respond like Pharaoh – looking for someone, anyone to blame, trying to desperately control our environment and the people around us. We can get fixated on problems. Our eyes narrow. We can’t see clearly.


Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, have a different type of fear. They fear God. The phrase the fear of God is often used in ways that imply punishment from an angry God. The scriptures describe fearing God differently. To fear God means to have awe, reverence, humility before the God of all creation. Where fear usually narrows our focus and leads us to try to control, fear of God widens our gaze. It helps us to let go of control because God is God, and we are not. Such reverence and awe help us to see life and goodness rather than fixating on problems, to see others with com- passion.


That’s how the women in our story today see, even in a time of fear. Hearing about them can help us reflect upon how we see. First there’s Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh tells them, “When you see the Hebrew women on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him.” Yet, if these midwives were really to see the Hebrew women before them, they would not be able to kill their babies. And that’s what happens. Because they look to God with awe, they can truly see the women, they can see new life and see it as a cause to rejoice rather than fear. Shiphrah and Puah do have reason to fear Pharaoh. They put themselves at great risk by defying his orders. Yet their fear of God gives them a wider perspective. God is God, Pharaoh is not. The Pharaohs of the world may wreak havoc for a time, but God’s new life will prevail.


One of the babies that Shiphrah and Puah protect turns out to be Moses. When his mother looks at him, she sees that he is a fine baby. Actually, the Hebrew phrase used here is the same phrase that’s used repeatedly in Genesis 1 when God looks at creation each day and sees that it is good. When Moses’ mother sees her baby and sees that he is good. it becomes clear to her – she must do whatever it takes to protect him. Rather than being overwhelmed by fear, this mother’s awe and reverence for God’s good creation gives her focus and helps her to act with courage and strength.


She could be killed for defying Pharaoh’s orders. Her baby could easily drown in the Nile. Or worse yet, he could be seen and taken from the river by one of Pharaoh’s own. Pharaoh’s daughter does see the ark and orders her servant to take it from the river. Will she follow her father’s orders and throw him back into the Nile unprotected? No, because she sees the baby and hears his cries and has compassion for him. Her father wants her to fear this Hebrew child, but she gazes on him with love.


Meanwhile, Moses’ sister has been hiding in the bushes so she can see what happens to him. Her careful attention means she’s ready to act when Pharaoh’s daughter takes him out of the river. In a time of chaos and fear, these women respond with courage and strength because of how they see. They see life and goodness, they see with awe and reverence and compassion. In the way that they see, these women help change the world. All of this goes on right under Pharaoh’s watch. He’s so worried about the threat of the Hebrew boys that he overlooks the women.


Pharaoh’s fear clouds his judgment and his vision. This happens to us so often as well. Our vision needs help and correction, not in the form of $800 eyeglasses, but in the form of what scripture describes as the fear of God. That is the lens that gives us perspective and wisdom. When we look to God with awe and reverence, when we stand before our creator with humility and wonder, then we can see the world more clearly. In relationship with God, we are assured that we need not fear. God is at work. Our eyes are opened to see life and goodness even in times of chaos. We are given what we need to respond with courage and compassion. 


We are also assured that God sees us and sees all our struggles with compassion. We’ll hear more about how God sees next week.


Beloved of God, God gazes upon you with love and compassion. You can fear God and see differently.



Blessing of the Backpacks