Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2023   Fourth Sunday in Lent “Ask Better Questions”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read scripture passages for the day.


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

There’s no such thing as a dumb question, right? I think that’s true when we’re trying to grasp a new concept or skill or doing science. We learn by asking all the questions. When it comes to faith, we need to ask all sorts of things, too. But there are some questions that aren’t helpful, that are even bad – questions that are formed by assumptions, questions that lead us to judgment or isolation.

Take the disciples in our story today. When they see a man who is blind, their almost knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ That’s a bad question. It assumes that illness and disability are caused by sin; that the man deserved to be born blind; that physical blindness is a form of failure. After Jesus heals the man, the crowd gets in the game. Bystanders interrogate the man, seeking to dissect what’s happened to him. They ask bad questions because their intent is to drive him out and prove that Jesus is a heretic. 

What are our intentions? What assumptions do we carry? How do we respond when we encounter someone who’s suffering? Someone who’s changing? How do our beliefs prevent us from seeing others? Our artwork today raises those questions. The piece is called Insight. The artist is Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity. She writes in her artist statement:

In this image, hands expressing denial and exclusion press in on the man. In the background, I wrote a barrage of questions I imagine emerging from the crowd: 

Why did God heal you? 

What did you do to cause this? 

Who sinned? 

Alongside those questions, I wove in contemporary statements I’ve heard spoken in situations when we think a tidy rationale will comfort us: 

Everything happens for a reason. 

God only gives you as much as you can handle. 

Pray harder.

I wonder what this story would look like had better questions been asked. 

What if his neighbors had instead asked the blind man, “How do you feel?” 

What if the man had asked the crowd, “What are you afraid of?”

What if the Pharisees had asked one another, “What if it’s time to change?”

Surrounded by remnants of narrow vision, the man has new insight. He looks beyond the words, beyond the crowd, beyond the accusations driving him out of town.  (1)

What are the questions God is inviting us to ask as we consider our world and the people around us?

When I was a pastor at Luther College, I was in lots of conversations about the mental health of students, as our young people were suffering well before the pandemic started. We were asking what’s going wrong for this student, for that student? Then one day my colleague David Vasquez said something along these lines: We’re acting like students who are anxious and depressed are hav- ing an abnormal reaction. But there’s so much anxiety and pain all around them in the larger culture. What if students are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation? That question gave me a fuller picture of students and their awareness, insights, and lived wisdom. It helped me to name the connection between pastoral care and advocating for justice and healing in the larger world.

Asking a different question helped me to see more clearly.

A similar invitation comes from Oprah Winfrey and the renowned brain development and trauma expert, Dr Bruce Perry, in their book What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing. A description of the book asks:

Have you ever wondered “Why did I do that?” or “Why can’t I just control my behavior?” 

Others may judge our reactions and think, “What’s wrong with that person?” 

When questioning our emotions, it’s easy to place the blame on ourselves; holding ourselves and those around us to an impossible standard. It’s time we started asking a different question …[Rather than asking] what’s wrong with you? [ask] what happened to you? It’s a subtle but profound shift in our approach to trauma, and it’s one that allows us to understand our pasts in order to clear a path to our future―opening the door to resilience and healing in a proven, powerful way. (2)

Asking different questions and seeking to see differently can be unsettling, to say the least. It can be distressing even. Yet in all the challenges and distress we face, for whatever reason, we are not alone. God accompanies us completely, fully, entering all the places of pain. A poem offered this week by A Sanctified Art has brought that alive to me. It’s called “Jesus in the Psych Ward”, by Rev. Sarah Speed. This week I’ve also imagined a similar poem called “Jesus in the Nursing Home”.

“Jesus in the Psych Ward”

He’s in group therapy, plastic chairs in a circle.

Paper cups with weak coffee. Everyone in the room has seeking eyes.

The Pharisees admitted him. They said things like, He’s more than we can handle. 

They let the rumors fly.

The other patients like him. They say, He listens to me. 

He calls them by name.

And when one of them asks,

Is this our fault? Are we here because we sinned?

Jesus does not wait for the facilitator to speak.

He crosses the circle. He kneels down. He grabs their hands in his and says,

Child of the covenant, God loves you too much to ever wish you pain.

Bodies and minds crumble sometimes, but God’s love for you does not.

And after that there were happy tears and the group was dismissed to lunch,

where they broke bread and no one talked of sin.(3)


What happened to you?

Lots has happened to all of us throughout our lives and in the past three years.

And in all of it, we are loved. You are loved, you are held, you are accompanied.

This love empowers our resilience.

It helps us ask better questions.

It allows us to see ourselves, and others, more clearly, with more compassion.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.



1 Artist Statement on Insight by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity from A Sanctified Art. Inspired by John 9: 8-41 Silk painting with digital drawing and collage.

2 What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry. Flatiron Books. April 2021.

“Jesus in the Psych Ward” by Rev. Sarah (Are) Speed, from Seeking: Honest Questions for Deeper Faith, a Lenten Devotional by A Sanctified Art

Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2023   Third Sunday in Lent “Mutuality of Need”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson , Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read scripture passages for the day.


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

Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink.

I invite you to use your imagination for a bit – kids, adults, all of us. Imagine it’s a really hot day and you’re incredibly thirsty. You’re all out of water. If you don’t get some soon things are going to get tricky – dehydration, heat stroke even. You’ve got to ask another person for a drink but that’s going to be tricky, given who that person is.

Maybe you’re at another school early, warming up before a big meet or game, and you discover you forgot to fill your water bottle. You can’t find a drinking fountain anywhere. The only person around to ask is your biggest competition, a person standing between you and getting to state. You have to ask for help.

Or maybe it’s an unseasonably hot fall day during election season. You and a friend are out knocking on doors for your candidate when you realize you’ve got to get indoors and have a drink quickly, or you’ll faint. The closest house is the one with the political signs that make your skin crawl. 

Imagining scenarios like that can give us a taste of what Jesus might be feeling as he asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. He’s tired, thirsty, and in need. It’s a hot, dry climate. There’s a well but he doesn’t have a jar. The only person who can get him water is someone a Jewish man isn’t supposed to talk to, much less ask for help, a Samaritan woman. 

Just by speaking to her, Jesus demonstrates his willingness to be vulnerable. He risks his reputation, the credibility of his ministry, her anger. Then Jesus goes a step further and asks for what he needs, showing that even he can’t make it alone. That’s another huge risk – for the Son of God to be so openly human. I mean, who wants a vulnerable Savior? A Savior who has needs? Who asks for help?

Yet Jesus’ vulnerability transforms this woman’s life. It seems when he asks something of her, she begins to trust him. She has at least five reasons why he shouldn’t be vulnerable to anyone, yet she engages in honest conversation with him. She asks questions, seeks to understand, and boldly asks Jesus for living water. She also shares her needs with him. Five different men have divorced her, leaving her incredibly vulnerable in a patriarchal society. She tells Jesus the truth, risking judgment and scorn. Both Jesus and the woman model a beautiful vulnerability, or what Dr. Karoline Lewis describes as a mutuality of need. Jesus needs water to drink, and the woman needs living water. Jesus needs her to be a witness, and she needs Jesus to invite her into a new identity.

What do you most need?

What might God do as you are vulnerable and honest about your needs, your humanity?

If you ask that competitor for help, what might happen?
If you show your humanity to someone on the other side and look for their humanity, what might happen?

Together, could we experience this mutuality of need and care?

Dr. Lewis’ insight about the mutuality of need inspired the artist for today’s painting, Rev. Lauren Wright Pitman. After reading Lewis, Pitman noticed that in most art inspired by this story, Jesus and the Samaritan woman are not on the same level. So, Pitman created this image with their body positioning mirrored and their eyes on the same plane. Let’s take a closer look at the image on your bulletins and up here, and listen to some of Pitman’s artist statement to help open us to this story.

She writes, “Where their arms overlap becomes a vibrant blue, creating a water drop with a dove in it, representing the living water that springs forth from their mutual need and relationship. 

“Each of their clothing is patterned with the other’s need. 

  • In Jesus’ clothing are simplified ‘springs of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 
  • In the Samaritan woman’s clothes, her water jar is positioned upright and poured out, representing her wrestling with whether she will interact with this man—and further, whether he is the awaited Messiah.

“The image is subtly divided in half by slight shifts in color value. There is a chasm between them socially, culturally, religiously. [The conflict between Jews and Samaritans over their places of worship shows up here too. On the left is the temple in Jerusalem, and on the right is Mount Gerizim.]

“In the center is the Samaritan woman’s vessel. We aren’t told whether she fills the jar or gives Jesus water, however we are told that she leaves the jar behind. Her need is not the water in the well; her need is for grounding in a new identity, and to be seen for who she really is. She needs to be defined not by the worst parts of her life, the number of her husbands, or others’ assumptions, but to be seen through the lens of mutual need—to be seen as one of the first witnesses of the Messiah, and now a vessel of living water herself.”

What do you most need?

What defines you?

Is Jesus needing your life to be defined by something deeper, something truer?

What springs of water are waiting to gush up in you?

Jesus, our vulnerable Savior, meets us at the font and at the table.

Jesus engages us in conversation today through scripture and song.

Jesus asks for our help, our vulnerability, our witness, our mutuality.

Jesus gives us living water to spring up to eternal life.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.


 Rev. Lauren Wright Pitman, Artists statement for the piece “Living Water Inspired by John 4:5-42”

Digital painting purchased from A Sanctified Art,

Sermon for Sunday, March 5, 2023 Second Sunday in Lent “Begin Again”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Decorah, Iowa
Beloved People of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.
How do we begin again?
I think that’s what Nicodemus is asking Jesus. I think it’s what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus, his community, and all of us to do. Begin again. In all sorts of ways, not just in our religious or spiritual lives.
The conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus has taken on layers of doctrinal interpretation over the years. How is one born again? Which denominations understand that correctly? How does baptism play into it? Do you have to make a decision for Jesus? I personally find those questions interesting. Or maybe I tell myself I do to justify the time and money I spent at seminary! But I don’t think they get us to the heart of what Jesus is inviting us to do. Jesus isn’t just talking about our religious lives. Jesus is pointing us to ongoing new life, rebirth, transformation for every aspect of our lives, at every age and stage of life. How can this be Nicodemus asks?
How do we begin again?
This is a question Abraham and Sarah must ask as well when God calls them to leave home late in life and enter uncertain terrain.
How do we begin again?
In the wake of Covid, in a polarized country, as a congregation figuring out how to be church in this time?
How do we begin again after a loss, when we fail, in the wake of conflict, in retirement, as a student, when plans always feel tentative these days?
How do we begin again each day when we face pain, injury, or illness; as our bodies age; while depression and anxiety lurk; when the sun isn’t shining; when we’re lonely? How do we get out of bed every morning?
These are hard questions to face with others in the light of day. I wonder if that’s why Nicodemus went to Jesus under the protective cover of darkness. It’s hard to ask and even harder to really stay with these questions. It’s tempting to rush to answers, strategies and busyness. Our culture offers many quick fixes for our questions, most of which cost money: this new diet, that subscription service, new shelves to organize the chaos, supplements, apps, rituals, and ointments.
I use many of these things. Yet I wonder if they keep us satisfied with self-improvement rather than renewal and transformation? I wonder, how do we live with hope that we can begin again, can experience rebirth at every stage of our life? Jesus points Nicodemus and us to the Spirit – the Spirit that can’t be controlled and managed, the Spirit that blows where it will. Jesus promises that new life happens as it did in the beginning of creation. It happens because God’s Spirit is on the loose. The Spirit that stirred over the waters then still lives and moves beyond anything we can ask or imagine. Transformation happens for you, for me, for creation not because we have the best answers or the right strategies, but because of God who so loves the world, God who so loves you.
God says to us each new day, in so many ways, I love you, I am with you always, you are mine, you are forgiven, I am holding your life, I’m working in you to bless the world. You don’t have to be on the treadmill of self-improvement. You can trust me and follow me into uncertain terrain, you have all that you need. God conveys this love and assurance to us through scripture, music, other people, water, bird song, trees, bread, wine, sunrise and dusk, every single day.
We can be born again each day because of God’s love for us. I first learned this the first week of my first year as a Luther College student at a student-led Bible study. The “ice breaker” that night involved sharing the date that you were born again. I panicked. Had I ever been born again? One guy said a date in 1971, the day he was baptized. But I had no idea exactly when I was baptized. Then the woman next to me said, “Yesterday”. That surprised me as I’d seen her leading worship earlier and she’d looked so full of joy and peace. “Yesterday,” she said, and the day before and the day before and the day before. Each new day I’m born again as I remember what God has done for me.” When it was my turn I said, me too. I think of her still, especially on days when it’s hard to get out of bed.
We can and do experience rebirth each day. Yet there are also times when we’re held in a protective, dark space for a time until the fuller new life that God is preparing in us is ready to emerge.
Lent is one of those times. And interestingly, Lent is a period of 40 days. Whenever you see 40 in scripture, you know it’s an important amount of time: whether it’s 40 days and nights of rain in the time of Noah, the 40 years God’s people spent wandering in the wilderness after slavery, or Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. 40 weeks is also the length of a typical human pregnancy.
In these 40 days of Lent, we’re held in God’s womb as we await rebirth and resurrection at Easter.
During the seasons of Lent and Easter we return to the waters of baptism, the waters of life and renewal, and we are reborn.
How do we begin again?
Through the love and life given by our Mothering God.
Through the Spirit that is on the loose.
Through water and the Word at work in creation and for you.

Sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2023    Sixth Sunday after Epiphany  “Life in the Beloved Community”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church   

 Decorah, Iowa

Click here to read scriptures for the day.


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

Author Philip Yancey tells about meeting a woman who was in desperate straits. She was home- less, sick, and unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter.  She’d turned to prostitution to survive. He writes, “I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’”

My heart aches for people who’ve been harmed by the church and the ways the church has weaponized scripture. I know there are many of you who have been harmed by these passages about divorce and remarriage that have been taken out of context. Jesus was trying to protect and care for women who were viewed as property in his time. Today, a Christ-like ethic of care and protection recognizes that many marriages have already ended long before a divorce happens and that staying in unhealthy marriages is harmful. A Christ-like ethic rejoices in the many wonderful marriages that come after a divorce. When I think about those marriages in this congregation, I give thanks. Your marriages are a witness to Christian resurrection, hope and new life. Thanks be to God.

Yet it isn’t just this stuff about divorce that’s hard to hear. This whole part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount today is tough. It can leave me feeling a bit like that woman Philip Yancey met. Really Jesus? I want to say.  We already feel bad about ourselves, this just makes things worse. Yet then I remember what Jesus was all about in his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus isn’t giving a lecture on morality to a bunch of individuals. That’s often how it sounds to us as 21st Century, individualistic Americans. We hear harsh admonitions to shape up and try to get everyone else out there to get in line too. We hear these as instructions for individuals, forgetting too, that they are out of con- text.

But Jesus is doing something else in his sermon. He’s speaking to the whole group of his disciples, including us, and calling forth a new community, a blessed community, a beloved community. A community that Jesus hopes will embody God’s love and mercy and care so that we can live differently, honoring relationships and one another for the sake of witness to God’s love. He instructs all of us disciples to take relationships with one another very seriously, to go beyond the bare mini- mum of the letter of the law, to go the extra mile in caring for the dignity and honor of others.

So Jesus, you may think that it’s easy to avoid committing murder. You’ve heard it said, do not murder. Most of us can avoid, most of the time, feeling murderous rage. Or, maybe we feel it but we can avoid acting on it. But there are so many other ways that we kill others through a refusal to love; so many ways we treat others as less than human and cut off from relationship; so many ways we inflict soul-killing violence on each other through our words, our silences, our judgments, our indifference. And Jesus says, we’ve got to look at that. That’s important.

And Jesus says, you may think I’m not an adulterer, I don’t commit adultery. But consider all the other ways we use and exploit people for our own pleasure, that we see others as just objects to get our own needs and desires met. Jesus says we’ve got to look at that. We’ve got to look deeper, look at the heart. And don’t think I’m better than that person, I’m better than that woman who is a prostitute.

Jesus says this way of being in relationship is what is needed in this community, in that context, and in ours. Then we have to keep thinking it through because Jesus took the law really seriously; but he kept interpreting it. He said, “You’ve heard it said … but I say to you.” So, this is the ongoing work in community of saying, what does it mean, in this context, to take relationships serious- ly and act in Christ-like ways? That’s the work the church does together.

But what happens when we can’t live these out? Are we liable to the fires of hell like Jesus says?

Those words call to mind Dante’s inferno and eternal damnation. Except Jesus uses the word Gehenna when he talks about hell. Gehenna was the place outside Jerusalem where the garbage was burned. Jesus is referencing an actual physical place of fire and terrible smells. It seems Jesus is saying, if we live with anger continually, life’s going to feel as bad as being in a fiery pit of garbage. If we let lust control us, we feed a fire that can become all consuming. If we ignore the dignity of others, It’ll feel like we’re living outside the city, in the dump, cut off from community.

Jesus’ words seem more descriptive than prescriptive. We’re going to create a hell on earth if we don’t tend to relationships. This whole passage paints a vivid picture of what God desires for us and how often we fall short of it. It reveals just how much help we need. As 21st Century individualistic Americans, we tend to think we can fix everything through hard work and positive thinking and maybe a good book or podcast. Jesus shows us here that we can’t live in healthy community and be in right relationships on our own. We need God’s guidance and God’s mercy and forgiveness when we fail. We need God to shape us into a community that practices reconciliation and humility rather than self-righteousness and judgment.

We need help. And nothing can stop God from giving that help. Christ Jesus enters every hell, every place of fire and brokenness to forgive, to heal, to form community, to bring resurrection, hope and new life.

Christ meets us here today.

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2023 Fifth Sunday after Epiphany -Annual Meeting Sunday “Be Who You Are”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church   – Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read scripture passages for the day.


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

Our righteousness must exceed that of very morally upright people, or we won’t enter the kingdom of heaven? I’ve been wrestling with that statement all week. For one thing, the word righteousness carries a lot of baggage. I sometimes feel very righteous and virtuous, like when I’m shopping at the Coop with my reusable produce bags. It’s good that I’m caring for creation by avoiding single- use plastics, but sometimes I’m also silently judging everyone who’s not. (Which is ridiculous be- cause half the time I forget my fancy reusable bags and there’s still a ton of plastic in my life.)

I’m pretty sure that a misguided sense of moral superiority is not what Jesus wants for me. That doesn’t feel good, much less like the kingdom of heaven. I think Jesus wants us to focus less on trying to be right and more on loving others. And self-righteousness is an obstacle to love. So why does Jesus say our own righteousness needs to be exceptional?

At the pastor’s Bible study this week, Pr. Mike Wilker, from First Lutheran Church, shared a story about real righteousness and the kingdom of heaven. The story has stuck with me ever since. He gave me permission to share it with you and I’m describing it the way I imagine it happened.

A woman, I’ll call her Mary, volunteered regularly at a shelter for women and children who were unhoused. It was Mary’s job to prepare and serve breakfast for the shelter residents. Mary was the model volunteer in many ways. She was always on time, never missed her shifts, followed all the checklists about health and safety and food preparation. But she never left the kitchen. She never went to sit and talk with the residents, never shared a meal or a laugh with them. Mary stayed firmly behind the counter.

Until one day there was a commotion beyond the dining area, a commotion that drew everyone outside, including Mary. The husband of one of the residents had been stabbed on the front steps of the shelter. Mary found herself holding this man as he lay there bleeding while they all waited for the ambulance to arrive. The man survived and recovered.

Yet he wasn’t the only one who experienced healing that day. As the ambulance raced away, the shelter residents grabbed each other’s hands and came together to pray for him. They drew Mary into the circle. As she held hands with the women, the barriers that she’d put between them fell away. As she joined their prayers, she experienced the kingdom of heaven. She felt the presence of God through them. She was righteous, in right relationship with the women around her.

This story is such a beautiful picture of  the righteousness that brings us into the kingdom of heaven. It isn’t about checklists or moral superiority or self-righteousness. When we hear about righteousness in scripture, it means right relationship. This story also reveals that entering the kingdom of heaven isn’t something that happens after we die. We experience the kingdom of heaven here on earth through right relationships with others – through relationships marked by mutuality and humility, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.

But it can be so hard to experience these relationships. Our baggage gets in the way. We get stuck behind our own counters, afraid to get too close to other people and their needs. The boxes on the checklists get completed, but we miss the person right in front of us. We side-eye each other at the grocery store. We beat up on ourselves for things like acting superior, forgetting produce bags, forgetting someone’s name. That gets us fixated on ourselves rather than the people around us. Our ways of worship and hospitality become rigid, as does our thinking, our politics, our preferences.

The good news is that these obstacles don’t stop God from making us righteous, drawing us into right relationship. Jesus is always working to break down what separates and to bring us together.

Jesus, in essence, takes our hands and draws us into that circle of prayer outside the shelter. We may not feel an actual tug on the sleeve, but Jesus uses concrete, physical things to grab hold of us and draw us in.

Jesus works through other people and stories, water, bread, wine, words of promise, music, visual art, creation and so many concrete things. Jesus works through these things to say to us: you are loved, you are forgiven. You don’t have to focus on yourself – on all your faults, on all your good deeds. You’re freed from worrying if you’re OK in comparison to everyone else, from trying to build yourself up at their expense. You are created good in God’s image. You are loved just as you are. You are forgiven and set free for life in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. 

You all are the light of the world. That light is in all y’all, Jesus tells us. Let it shine so that others know the love of God. Be a beacon of courage for that woman behind the counter. Put down your checklist and see the twinkle in someone’s eye. Let go of trying to be right, correcting others, reflect love instead.

These are important reminders on the day of Good Shepherd’s annual meeting. In all we do together as a congregation, we are to be salt, tending to relationships. We are to shine with the justice and joy of God, the righteousness of God that brings healing to human relationships, to relationships with creation.

Today, we experience the kingdom of heaven in Christ’s presence so that we might be who we are – salt of the earth, light of the world, bearers of love.