Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2020 – “God’s Beautiful Conspiracy”

Reformation Sunday – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

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

You will know the truth and the truth will make you free, says Jesus.

Questions about what really is “the truth” are all around us these days. We live in a time when basic facts are up for debate, when opinion carries more weight than research, when conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies run rampant.

These days “truthiness” seems to be the guiding principle. “Truthiness” is a term coined by comedian Stephen Colbert in his satirical TV show The Colbert Report. “Truthiness” is all about what seems and sounds right to me. It isn’t based upon facts but upon opinions and political persuasion.

It’s easy to mock other people for ascribing to “truthiness”, especially when you watch Colbert. It’s easy to think those other people do that, but we know the truth. We want to imagine that we are more rational and logical, that we are more thoughtful.

Yet all of us are susceptible to confirmation bias – the tendency to pay attention to things that uphold our own positions and ignore things that challenge them. We search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that supports our ideas. A neighbor who thinks dogs are inherently dangerous sees a vicious dog attacking an innocent person. Another neighbor, who loves dogs, sees the dog defending a family against a menacing stranger. Confirmation bias shapes what they see. If you assume someone is angry at you, you’ll interpret all their actions in that light, finding numerous ways to confirm your bias. “She hasn’t responded, I must have done something wrong”, when really, she’s just busy. Confirmation bias affects how we consume media, interact with social media, respond in the workplace, engage in politics and more. We fall into the sin of thinking we are superior to those who hold different positions. We fear others who are different from us be- cause of our bias and prejudice. We get entrenched, entrapped and enslaved by all this, stuck in judgements, fear and anger. This sin prevents us from loving and serving our neighbor and God’s creation. We need to be set free for lives of love and service.

Jesus promises that we will know the truth and the truth will make us free.

Yet, if truth is presented in just an abstract form as a set of propositions that we can accept or reject, that doesn’t really help us. That just leaves us stuck in our own faulty thinking, bias, and desire to be in control. We need something to break through to us, to free us from sin. We and all of creation need to be set free from the power of sin.

God knows this and so God has begun a conspiracy. Yes, a conspiracy. Our triune God conspires to free this world from bondage to sin. Conspire comes from the Latin word conspirare which means to breathe together. Con means with/together and spirare means breath. To conspire means to join together so closely that you are breathing together toward a common goal. It doesn’t have to be a nefarious goal, though that’s the connotation the word has taken on in modern times. It is about breathing together towards a shared purpose. This is what our triune God does within God’s self and with us. God, within God’s self, is relationship and community among the three persons of the Trinity. The three are joined so closely together that one way to describe God is as a beautiful conspiracy, a beautiful breathing together toward the goal of freeing creation from bondage to sin.

God does not have a nefarious goal, but God is disruptive. God intends to break through all that traps and enslaves in order to free, renew and recreate. God is, at heart, the most beautiful conspiracy. God is the truth that sets us free. And, God draws us into this conspiracy, into breathing together with our triune God so that we and all creation might be set free from sin. God doesn’t just give us a bunch of propositions about truth that we can accept or reject.

Instead, God has come in Jesus to breathe with us, to join with us in being human, to be bound up in all of it with us. Jesus has taken on all our sin, all that traps us, all that keeps us separated from God and Jesus has broken its power. Now nothing can separate us from God. Not sin, not death, nothing in all creation can separate us from God, for God has shared in all of it with us. Sin and death seemed to prevail when Jesus was crucified, but God broke their power, raising Jesus to new life and setting us free for new lives of love and service. Though sin and death are still present for now, they do not define us, they do not have the power to keep us from God and neighbor. God, in Christ Jesus, draws us into life-giving relationship with God and one another

God also pours out upon us the power of the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God. The Spirit dwells and breathes in us. By the power of the Spirit, we are drawn into conspirare, into breathing together with God.

Beloved of God, in these difficult days there are so many troubling realities, so many nefarious conspiracies. Yet as Psalm 46 assures us, we need not fear. Our triune God is with us and always at work. Listen to this Psalm again and hear how God, the most beautiful conspiracy, works to break the power of sin, to be present, to bring saving help.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea;
though its waters rage and foam,
and though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be shaken;
God shall help it at the break of day.
The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake;

God speaks, and the earth melts away.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Come now, regard the works of the LORD,
what desolations God has brought upon the earth;
behold the one who makes war to cease in all the world;
who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, then, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.”
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

In this Psalm, God speaks to us to say, “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still and breathe and know that God is always working, conspiring to free, renew and recreate each of us, all of creation, and you.

God, who is truth, who is the most beautiful conspiracy, sets you free. Breathe in this good news whenever you feel afraid and overwhelmed in the days to come. You are set free to breathe with God, to love, to serve.

Let’s take a moment to breathe and pray together.

CANCELLATION NOTICE for Sunday’s Outdoor Communion Service!

DUE TO PREDICTIONS OF INCLEMENT WEATHER, SUNDAY’S 11:00 a.m. OUTDOOR SERVICE WITH HOLY COMMUNION HAS BEEN CANCELLED. See below for information about receiving communion from Pastor Amy on Sunday and the Zoom Youth Forum.

10:30 a.m. – ZOOM YOUTH FORUM

  • Youth Forum (grades 7-12) will meet via Zoom, since the Outdoor Worship Service is cancelled due to inclement weather.
  • The Zoom link is in the reminder email sent to all participants.

11:00 a.m. – Good Shepherd’s West Door – PASTOR AMY WILL OFFER IN-PERSON HOLY COMMUNION

  • Please contact Pastor Amy in advance if you plan to come.
  • A table will be set up outdoors at the west entrance, adjacent to the parking lot.
  • Note: If you wish to receive communion at another time, contact Pastor Amy by email or call the church office, 563-382-3963, to make arrangements.

Sermon for Sunday, October 18. 2020 – “Living with the Powers of This World but for God”

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

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

Jesus says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.” Sometimes that gets interpreted as a call to keep politics and religion separate. That kind of separation can sound appealing, especially right now. I am really going to miss gathering with my extended family this Thanksgiving, but I think I’ll be OK without the political arguments that have gotten nasty in recent years.

It’s tempting in these days to want our faith to provide a refuge from politics. Except the thing is, Jesus is actually engaging in some political sparring with people who are plotting against him. The question he is asked and the guidance he offers are both so relevant and important for how we live in our current political context. How do we engage with the government as people of faith?

Jesus is approached by two groups of religious leaders who normally can’t agree on anything. They each feel threatened by Jesus so team up to trap him with a political question – how should good religious people respond to corrupt government. One group, the Herodians, seem to have taken the approach of going along to get along. They collaborated with Rome and the puppet King Herod. Many criticized them for this but it’s likely they were trying to appease the Roman empire to protect Jewish religious freedom. The other group, the Pharisees, advocated separation from Rome. They emphasized loyalty to God alone and strict adherence to God’s laws.

So, when these two groups ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to Rome, they are trying to trap him. If he says no, the Herodians could say look, he’s advocating that people break the law; this is going to bring down the wrath of Rome. We shouldn’t make waves. If he says yes, the Pharisees could say he’s not really a Jew. Jews should never show loyalty to any government, only to God.

Jesus refuses to give a simple ‘yes or no’ answer to their question about paying taxes. He asks them to show him a coin. This can seem like he’s dodging the question as so many of our leaders do now; but in reality, Jesus is convicting them. He says, “Show me the coin used to pay this tax.” They hand it over and likely realize, too late, that Jesus has actually trapped them. “Whose image is this”, Jesus asks, “and whose title is inscribed upon it?” I can picture the leaders cringing as they answer, “the emperors.” They are busted. They aren’t supposed to have a coin with the emperor’s image on it in the temple because the emperor claims the title: Most High God. The religious leaders well know that such a title belongs only to God who is so beyond our images and imaging. Jewish law prevents them from carrying a graven image in the temple, much less the image of a false god.

Jesus convicts these religious leaders of their participation in a corrupt government. Even the separatists were influenced by Rome, carrying its coins and images. And, those who were trying to go along to get along were breaking God’s law. They all were trapped in an oppressive system.  They all were complicit.

Our context is different, but we, too, are all complicit with the sin and corruption in our own country, with the powers and principalities of this fallen world. As Dr. Rolf Jacobsen of Luther Seminary points out, “I’m thinking about the money in my own wallet and the ways that it has graven images of my own country’s false gods and statements of faith that run counter to the God whom I follow. On the bills and coins in my wallet are the faces of some slave owners, the perpetrator of the genocidal trail of tears, the images of some quasi-religious civic symbols that are not of my Christian faith, and the words ‘In God We Trust’— but the God to which these bills and coins bear witness is not the God of the cross. So, what are we to do? Trapped in a fallen, sinful world, are we to flee the world and separate or cloister ourselves? That’s one option. Are we to try to burn the system down and revolt against the empire? That’s another option.

Dr. Jacobsen continues, “It seems to me that Jesus’ words, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s,’ at once free us to live with the emperor but to live for God. The kingdoms of this earth all around us trap us in their sickening realities. But the kingdom of God—which is not of this world—is even now breaking into this world and freeing us to live lives of faith in God and love of God and neighbor.” End quote.

We all are shaped by corrupt and corrupting forces and images. Yet, what matters more is that we bear the image of God, for we are all created in the image of God. We all claim a variety of titles: Democrat, Republican, Baby Boomer, Gen Z, feminist, libertarian, conservative. And, as was true of the Herodians and the Pharisees, all of these groups are complicit in some form of injustice. Yet, those are not the titles that define us. We all bear the most important title, Beloved Child of God.

The kingdom of God is always breaking into this fallen world to remind us of who and whose we are. We are created in the image of God. We are inscribed with the cross of Christ and called the Beloved Child of God. We are set free from the power of sin to live for God and neighbor.

So dear People of God, how are we living with the emperor, with the powers and principalities of this world, but living for God and God’s priorities?

How are we, as people of faith, engaging with our government? And, how are we practicing love of God and love of neighbor in this fallen world? We need to wrestle with those questions especially as citizens of a democracy in an election year. One resource to aid our deliberation is the recent Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement adopted by the ELCA Church Council. This social message comes out of engagement with scripture and Lutheran teaching about how God works in the world. Lutherans teach that God works both to create faith through word and sacrament and to bring about human flourishing and enough for all through human roles, structures and institutions. I’ll share more about how to find this at the end of worship.

This social message articulates the Lutheran understanding that government can be a force for evil or a force for good, but that God intends for government to protect all people and to enable human societies to flourish. Government is intended to do what churches, families, individuals, and businesses cannot do on their own: protect and coordinate the well-being of individuals, communities, and creation.

ELCA social teaching holds that all residents of the United States have a responsibility to make government function well, not to abandon our democracy, but to engage it in a spirit of robust civic duty. This social message also asks us to assess our government and to direct our civic engagement by keeping in mind a key question – “Is the neighbor being served?” In seeking to answer this question, the social message lists 14 guides for assessing the performance of government, including:

Unrestricted participation
Neighborly service to strangers and Recognizing neighbors, not just citizens
Adequate regulation
Protecting Individual Freedom and Accepting limitations on freedom
Respect and dignity
Maintaining the distinction between the role and the person filling it

These are some of the guides for determining if the neighbor is being served by the government.

Lutherans will disagree about how best the government should do these things and how best to serve the neighbor in complex circumstances. But, serving the neighbor must always be the question that guides us in our political life. As we live with the emperor but for God, we are called to live out love for God and neighbor through our civic engagement, striving to help our government function well so that all of God’s people can flourish.

We can do this, you can do this because you are God’s beloved child, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.

You bear the image of God.
You are set free to honor the image of God in your neighbor.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

The ELCA Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement and a 2 page visual summary is posted on the Good Shepherd website

Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2020 – “The Nonviolent Way of Jesus”

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

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

The other day my family and I got a wedding invite from a friend we haven’t seen in years. In normal times I’d feel honored that we were remembered and included. But during a pandemic, I wondered why we made the guest list when weddings need to be small right now in order to be safe. I quickly replied with our regrets. Being invited to a wedding isn’t always an occasion for joy.


The same was true in the ancient world. Sometimes wedding invites were a problem because kings and rulers used weddings and big feasts as opportunities to demonstrate their power. These feasts were not just celebrations they were chances for leaders to say, “Look at how many people support me. Look at how many come at my beck and call to prove their allegiance to me and my family”. Such weddings were more like modern political rallies than they were like our cake cutting, chicken dancing, bouquet throwing celebrations. Well, more like political rallies on steroids actually. If you attended a royal wedding, you were showing your support for the ruler. If you declined an invitation you could face death. That seems to be what’s happening in the parable today.

The traditional interpretation of this parable is that it is about God and about salvation, but I’m not so sure. Jesus tells this story about the kingdom of heaven not as an explanation of who will be saved and how, but in answer to a specific question about his authority after he challenges the powers that be. Also, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven he isn’t talking about where we go after we die, but rather about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven and the ways that coming kingdom challenges this world.

And as Jesus begins telling the parable he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a King who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” He doesn’t say the Kingdom of Heaven is like this as he does in other parables. Many scholars wonder if Jesus isn’t trying to compare and contrast God’s kingdom with all the rulers of this world and all the violence of this world.

Let’s consider this story from that angle. The king in this parable seems to be on fairly rocky ground with his constituents. He looks to be as unpopular as the Roman oppressors of Israel or the puppet kings Rome put in place, like King Herod. This king sends out a group of slaves to summon the people he’s invited to his big feast – all the big wigs in the kingdom.  When none of them show up, he sends a second group of slaves saying, “Tell them I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and fatted calves are slaughtered and everything is ready. Come to the wedding.”

Everyone knows the ruler hasn’t prepared the dinner himself. Such work would have been done by the slaves in his house toiling for hours. But, this personal style and this second invitation suggest the king is trying to send a strong message: By refusing this invitation you are personally refusing me; you had better come. His second call is both inviting and threatening. Some continue to just ignore the invitation but a larger group curses and kills the king’s slaves. Basically, they carry out a political revolt. And, Jesus tells us, the king is enraged. He sends out his troops, destroys the rebels and burns the city.

Then the king sends his slaves out again to gather up other guests. The slaves are told to go out into the main streets and bring in anyone they find. On the one hand this sounds great – all sorts of people are invited to a feast. But in reality, the people the slaves meet on the streets are likely running in fear. Their city and their houses have been set on fire. When they are “invited” to the feast they don’t have much choice but to come, or they too will be killed. And so, they come and they meet the needs of the king. The gathering hall is filled, proving that this ruler can still command popular support.

But one man at the wedding registers his disapproval of the way the king is carrying out his business. This man shows up at the feast, but he doesn’t put on the wedding garment. He has not en- gaged in the political rebellion and the killing of the king’s slaves, but neither will he support the king’s violent demonstration of power by putting on the garment of celebration. When he’s asked to defend himself, he remains silent. So, he’s bound by his hands and feet and thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. He is thrown back into the dark night of a city whose streets run with blood. He is thrown into the weeping and gnashing of teeth caused by a ruler who sent troops into city streets to compel obedience. He refuses to endorse the ways of oppression and so is sent out to be with those who are suffering its effects.

When the kingdom of heaven is compared to this banquet, it doesn’t look like the king. It looks like someone who chooses a different way to respond to the violence of our world. The kingdom of heaven looks like Jesus and the nonviolent way of Jesus, the suffering servant.

Jesus tells this story after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and after he has driven the money changers out of the temple. After these politically disruptive acts, the leaders are concerned. The scribes and the chief priests, who work for the Roman appointed king Herod, ask Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things?” They are trying to get a sense of how Jesus will respond to the powers that be in his day.

Many want Jesus to be the victorious Messiah who will wrest power from the oppressive Roman rulers, by the sword if necessary. Others hope he will not upset the fragile balance and power by challenging Rome and causing Rome to come down hard on the people. The leaders who ask Jesus about his authority wonder which side he will take. Jesus chooses neither side. Instead, he invokes the image of the suffering servant, an image from another time of oppression in Israel’s history. When Israel was in exile after being crushed by Assyria and Babylon, the prophet Isaiah told of God’s servant who would restore Israel not by violence or domination but by another way, the way of nonviolent resistance.

And soon after telling this parable, Jesus acts like the suffering servant and like the man at the wedding without the celebratory garment. When he is examined by the rulers of the world, he is speechless. He does not defend himself; he does not engage. So, they have him bound by hands and feet and thrown into the outer darkness of crucifixion and death.

Jesus takes his place out in the darkness with all those who weep and gnash their teeth, all who long for life and for our world to be different, all who long for an end to troops in the streets and cities burning. He takes his place on the cross and endures all the pain and brokenness of our world. He shows us that his way is to be in the midst of suffering, to be with all who weep. In this way, Jesus destroys death’s power to separate us from God and one another. For not even death can now separate us from God.

In his teaching and in his life, Jesus offers all his listeners a vision of God’s kingdom. And this vision challenges and calls all of us who hear, not just those who live under Roman rule but all who live in this world. We are called to both resist oppression and avoid violence, including angry and hateful words. We are called to bear witness to God who is not a tyrant but rather a suffering servant to God who, as Isaiah tells us, sets a feast for all people and wipes away every tear from our eyes. We are called to stand with those who are cast out into suffering and violence and assure them of God’s presence with them. We are called to trust that God is at work destroying the power of death.

We are also assured of Jesus’ presence with us in taking this different path, even though it is difficult. Jesus is with you and me as we see and experience the suffering of the world, as we weep and gnash our teeth and long for things to be different, as we choose our leaders this election season.

You are not alone, beloved of God.

Christ Jesus, the suffering servant is with you. There is no suffering we experience that Christ Jesus does not share. And nothing, not even death, can separate you from God.

Sermon for Sunday, October 4, 2020 – “Hope and Humility’

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

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

This week, my husband Matt and I got to have a physically distanced gathering with some friends from Oregon who have a family home in Decorah. Since they were coming to our porch, I brought out some wine to serve them; but it was nowhere near as good as the amazing wine from Oregon they brought over. The gift of good friends, good wine and good conversation was so nurturing to me this week.

That time and our readings today also got me thinking about what brings about good grapes and good wine both literally and metaphorically. Both our first reading and our Gospel reading today consider that question and bring us into vineyards. In Isaiah we hear God’s people described as a vineyard. God plants and tends and nurtures and provides for the vineyard. God expects it to bear good fruit, the good grapes of justice and righteousness. Yet, instead of an abundant and pleasant harvest, God sees the wild grapes of violence, arrogance and bloodshed. Jesus tells a parable about tenants in God’s vineyard. They begin to think that they are entitled to all that the vineyard pro- duces, that they can do whatever they want with it. They become greedy, arrogant, violent.

These readings hit awfully close to home these days. We long for justice but see bloodshed. We hope for righteousness but hear a cry. What will bring change? What will bring about good fruit? What should be done?

Jesus asks his listeners what should be done about God’s vineyard that has been overrun by murderous tenants. They respond with outrage about the actions of the tenants. They assume the owner feels outrage as well – that he will “put those wretches to a miserable death.” It isn’t until later that they realize Jesus is speaking about them. They are quick to get self-righteously angry, quick to cast blame and point fingers. But like that old adage goes, if you point a finger at someone there are three pointing back at you.

As we consider the problems in our country these days, we are so quick to get self-righteous, to judge, to condemn, to lay the fault on others. Yet, that doesn’t lead to a healthy vineyard. Laying blame doesn’t change anything. Getting outraged at how others are responding only makes things worse. Cutting ourselves off from those who disagree does not produce growth. These are all variations of self-righteousness, and as Paul wrote in Philippians, self-righteousness is garbage of the worst kind; it’s a fertilizer that produces wild grapes.  

The fertilizer we need to bear good fruit is humility. The word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth.

I was reminded of the importance of humility this week as I read a reflection by Pr. Nathan Wicks,

one of the people Good Shepherd has supported along the path to pastoral ministry. Pr. Wicks writes, “Humility describes a way of relating to one another not out of self-righteousness or anger or trying to dominate another side by constantly telling them how wrong they are. Humility actually works against that self-righteous desire for the sake of maintaining an honest relationship with another. Humility can approach real differences and conflicts while still honoring the dignity of those with whom you disagree. Relationships of humility keep us human, both words coming from that word humus, as we honor the common ground from which we were molded by God and breathed to life…”

Pr. Wicks then points us to the cross, the ultimate gift of humility. He writes, “On the cross we don’t get the savior we want. We don’t have a Savior who simply lifts us out of the conflicts of our lives, finally giving the satisfaction of definitively proving why those we disagree with are so wrong. In Jesus, we have a Savior who submits to our self-righteous rage and is torn apart by it, a Savior who [as we heard last week in Philippians 2] “does not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” And in this way of humility is the ultimate surprise, “Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name …” (pastoral letter by Pr. Nathan Wicks).

In the cross is our greatest hope, the humble hope of resurrection.

Beloved of God, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the hope of the world. It is what brings change and new life. It is what makes our humility possible. I think so often we end up in the way of outrage and self-righteousness because we start to think it is all up to us to make things better.

That is such a heavy burden and it leads us to fear and judge and blame others who do things differently. Yet, in Christ’s cross and resurrection we see that even humanity’s most evil, violent actions cannot stop God from loving, forgiving and working new life. We see that it is not up to us to fix the vineyard. It is not up to us to produce good fruit.

Rather we are called into relationship with Christ Jesus who chose the way of humility. In that relationship, we are brought down to earth from our high horse as we are convicted of our sin.

We are also set free as we are forgiven and assured that nothing we do can prevent God from working life for us and through us. In this relationship with Christ, we find that we are not alone, that Christ shares the common ground of our humanity and knows what we’re going through. We are brought into relationship with the humble, grounding gifts of community, words, song, prayer, bread and wine. These gifts shape and form us so that we will be able to enter humbly the holy ground of relationship with others, even those who differ from us. We are shaped to share in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and new life knowing it does not all depend upon us.

What will bring good fruit, what will bring change in the vineyard? Christ Jesus is bringing that change now in you and through you. Your sin, the sin of the world cannot prevent God from bring- ing new life. You can meet others on the holy ground of a humble relationship knowing that Christ meets you there first.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.