Blessed Be the Memory of Beverly Tangen

Please keep the family of Good Shepherd member Beverly Tangen in your prayers. Beverly died Friday, April 9. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Sermon for Sunday, April 4, 2021 – “From Stunned Observers to Hope Bearers”

Easter Sunday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Mark 16:1-8

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

One of my daily rituals is to read The Morning, an e-newsletter from the New York Times. This past year I’ve wondered if it’s a good idea to start my day like that. Do I really need to read so much bad news? So, The Morning for March 24 caught my attention when it asked, “Is bad news the only kind?” There are many days when it feels like the answer to that question is yes.

But this morning, we say no. There is good news for our world, for you, for me.[1] Yet somehow, bad news is easier for us to hold on to.

The women at the tomb on that first Easter morning were accustomed to bad news. They lived under Roman occupation, daily life was filled with reports of violence and inhumane treatment. They had hoped Jesus would set them free. Instead, they looked on from a distance as Jesus breathed his last. They saw where his body was laid. They prepared to anoint him and worried about the stone at the tomb’s en- trance. They had grown accustomed to bad news.

When they reach the tomb, they are stunned by good news. The body they’ve come to bury with dignity is no longer there. They find a young man who tells them that Jesus has been raised.

Their job is no longer to anoint a body in the wake of bad news, but to announce good news! “Go,” the young man commands them, “and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” What do you do when the bad news you’ve learned to carry is taken from your hands and replaced with good news? What do you do when you’re prepared for death and find life instead? What do you do when the stone has already been rolled away and the tomb no long- er holds your loved one? No longer holds you?

You flee from the tomb, seized with terror and amazement, and you say nothing to anyone, for you are afraid. That’s where Mark’s gospel ends. Silence. Fear. Trembling. Bewilderment.

Preacher Richard Lischer says that we move through the events of Holy Week as stunned observers. “On Palm Sunday we watch the spectacle unfold as Jesus enters the capital to die. On Good Friday, we stand at the place of the skull and watch the execution take place.” [2]

And this morning we stand at the empty tomb alongside the first witnesses of the resurrection, and we are still stunned observers. We are stunned observers, as we have been throughout so much of this pandemic time, this Holy Year. We’ve been stunned by the death, the sorrow, the relentless bad news … Yet I wonder if we haven’t also been stunned by good news. I wonder if we haven’t also been startled by life rising up in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected times – new life emerging in the midst of deep grief.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of Mark’s account of the resurrection. I much prefer John, where Jesus meets Mary Magdalene at the tomb, calls her by name and sends her to share the good news with the disciples. She becomes the apostle to the apostles and proclaims boldly, “I have seen the Lord!”

I appreciate Matthew’s account where the women run from the tomb with fear and great joy in order to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen. On the way, Jesus meets them and sends them to proclaim the good news.

I even like Luke’s account, although in his telling the disciples think the women are giving them an idle tale. People struggle to take in the good news, so Jesus appears to them to open their eyes. The end of the Gospel of Mark leaves so much to be desired. Where is the witness of the women? Where is the risen Jesus? Where is the resolution, the ending for which we’ve been hoping? It’s not here. And maybe that’s why Mark is resonating so much with me this year.

We are so far into this pandemic time, long overdue for resolution, for a happy ending. And while there are surely signs of hope and progress, it’s not over. It’s not done. And it may never be—at least not in the way we had envisioned. One year later there is still so much fear, trembling, bewilderment. We’re right there with the women. We long to be more than stunned observers of all that has transpired in this year.

We long to respond in hopeful, life giving ways in the world, but we remain silent and afraid.

The stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. Bad news is not the only news. There is good news here. There is life in our midst—new life, surprising life, life emerging from deepest grief, life irrepressible, irresistible, life abundant, life astounding. And it’s terrifying. Terrifying because this abundant life is beyond our control, beyond our understanding, beyond our ability to explain or prove. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s not resolved. And it’s not over. It’s new every day. And while it makes a claim on us, it does not depend on us.

The women, for who knows how long, lived in fear. They said nothing to anyone. They experienced what had to be an overwhelming encounter with God’s persistent, relentless, death-defeating grace, and they could not speak of this good news. Who would believe them in a world that asks is bad news the only kind?

Could they even believe their own eyes? Could they trust that their experience had been real? They had watched him die. They knew how to grieve. They knew how to cope with bad news. They did not know how to respond to unexpected life.

And still, the good news has reached us this Easter morning. God’s Word accomplishes what it intends. The Good News does not return empty. It transformed those first witnesses of the resurrection from stunned observers to hope bearers. It transforms us. It empowers us to imagine new possibilities and new beginnings even now.

In the midst of our own unresolved story, good news is here. Good news for today and every day to come.

Jesus has been raised.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

 

[1] This sermon was written in collaboration with Pr. Stacey Nalean-Carlson, Glenwood and Canoe Ridge Lutheran Churches.

[2] “Stunned Observers: A Conversation between Richard Lischer and William H. Willimon.”  Christian Century, March 15, 2021.

Sermon for Sunday, March 28, 2021 – “Spirit Calls Us to Look”

Sunday of the Passion/Palm Sunday
Amalia J. Vagts. Wartburg Seminarian
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa

Gospel – Mark 15:1-41

Earlier this week, I asked my partner David what Palm Sunday was like in the congregation where he grew up. What he remembered most was being given a palm branch to wave in the procession. However, he said, “It always felt a little strange.” Strange? I asked. “Well, he said, we’re happy and waving palm branches for Jesus – but he’s on the way to his death!”[1]

This can feel like a strange day in the year of the life of the Church. We wave for the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, calling out “Hosanna” with the hope that Jesus will save us only to face the reality that Jesus won’t even save himself.

How do we find hope in a story like this?

I preached about this story on this day, Palm Sunday, a year ago while I was on internship. We were right at the beginning of this year of pandemic and racial reckoning and hope-seeking. It was our third or so recorded service. By then we knew that this wasn’t all going to be over by Easter. But it had just started to sink in.

On that day, Palm and Passion Sunday, when we began facing the death of Jesus we were only just starting to face the death of the pandemic. There were just over 9,000 recorded deaths from COVID in the United States. One year later, that number is 546, 591.

It’s an almost unimaginable number. It’s a level of suffering we want to look away from. It’s strange isn’t it – how we look at the cross, but away from death? But like our theme this Lent, Again & Again, the Spirit calls us to look. To look and face the sorrow and pain and fear and shame and guilt and anger and defensiveness and confusion of death. Again and again, the Spirit calls us to look.

A year ago by Palm Sunday, Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, had already been killed after being followed by three white men while he was jogging through his neighborhood in Georgia. Most of us didn’t know about it until a video of the murder was posted in early May.

Breonna Taylor, a black woman, had already been killed in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky, when police officers broke through the front door of the wrong home looking for a suspect. Her death also didn’t become national news until May, when the attention from Ahmaud’s Arbery’s death brought wider awareness to Breonna Taylor’s.

And a year ago on Palm Sunday, George Floyd was alive. I learned about George Floyd’s death via a Facebook post from a friend in Minneapolis the day after it happened. He posted a photo of officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck with other officers standing by, writing, “I’m not going to post the video, but look long and hard at this picture.”

I looked at the picture. And then I looked away.

Later that day, I saw another Facebook post from a friend with the words, “A man was lynched today.” These words were the words on a flag that used to be displayed outside the New York NAACP office building in the 1920s and ‘30s anytime a black person was lynched.

I looked at the words. And then I looked away.

How do we remain hopeful when things feel hopeless? How is the cross a symbol of death and life? Of hope in hopelessness?

Black theologian James Cone writes that the cross is a paradox because it “inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first, and the first last.”[2] He goes on to say that even in the terrible history of our racist past, black Americans found hope in the fact that “Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradiction of black life.” [3]

Hope is in God’s promise that death is not the final word. Hope is in the terrible and beautiful strangeness of this week as we focus on the defeat of our Savior at the hands of the ones who could save him. Jesus calls us to follow him to the cross.

What would it mean for our congregation to follow the path of Jesus described by the apostle Paul – to become completely empty of ego and fear and to enter into the places of deepest suffering? What would we find if we explored in depth the rhetorical question a classmate of mine asked this weekend, “Who killed Jesus – a person or a system?”[4] What would it look like for our congregation to take seriously the idea that we are all the Body of Christ and to enter into lament for the suffering of the Body?

Later on in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Jame Cone powerfully challenges those of us who are white and Christian to face our part in our history and present reality with this question: “Can one really understand the theological meaning of Jesus on a Roman cross without seeing him first through the lens of blacks on the lynching tree?”[5]

Who killed Jesus – a person or a system?

God breaks in to end systems that kill. Early on in Mark, when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, the heavens were torn open and the life-breath of God descended. And when Jesus drew his last breath, in the temple, in the holiest of holy places, the curtain was torn in two. In the presence of systems that kill, God is present in Christ through the Spirit to heal and restore you. Even when you feel abandoned, you are never alone.

In telling this story, we often focus on how everyone turns away from Jesus at the end. The religious leaders have become jealous and have handed him over. His closest students and followers have fallen asleep, denied and betrayed him, abandoned him. Where are you God? Jesus cried out. Why did you leave me?

And yet, towards the end of Mark’s account of the death of Jesus we have this detail. “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” (Mark 15:40-41NRSV).

Already in the very moment of his death we do not see Jesus abandoned and alone. God, who will raise Jesus up, is alive through the love and presence of the community of women who had come up with Jesus to Jerusalem. I’ve seen the love and presence of God alive in Good Shepherd members who are working to get more people in our community vaccinated. I’ve seen the love and presence of God alive in meals delivered to Good Shepherd family members in grief or illness. I’ve seen the love and presence of God alive in commitments from our congregation to work to be anti-racist and seek racial justice. I’ve seen the love and presence of God alive in you.

God who loves, heals, and restores you, promises you are not on your own. Jesus Christ, God with us, in death draws you and all people together. Yes, we’re waving palm branches for the One on the way to death. Again and again, the Spirit calls us to look. We’re waving them for the One who makes you alive to receive and be the love and presence of God for all the world.

[1] Conversation shared with permission.

[2] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011), 2.

[3] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 2.

[4] Conversation shared with permission.

[5] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 63.

Sermon for Sunday, March 21, 2021 – “The Way of the Seed”

Fifth Sunday in Lent
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.

“We’re stuck, can you please come help?” I perhaps should have been a bit more clear with my husband Matt when I made that request of him a number of years ago.

I’d taken our young kids on a dog walk by the Upper Iowa River. We were having a wonderful time when all of a sudden, the ground beneath us gave way. We found ourselves trapped in thick, heavy mud. We tried to free ourselves but the harder we pulled, the faster we sank. We were all quickly waist deep in mud and sinking. I needed reinforcements, and quickly, so I called Matt.

“Stuck – what do you mean?” Matt asked. I replied with some urgency, “We’re stuck in the mud by Chattahoochee Park, please come help.” I forgot to mention that we’d gotten stuck while walking. Matt heard stuck and mud and he pictured a car needing a tow. Past history of other incidents with me and vehicles may have played a role in what he pictured. He got off the phone and got going, preparing our other car to tow us out. This meant he showed up to help about 25 minutes after I called.

Meanwhile the kids and I sank deeper and deeper in the mud. Meanwhile the dog circled around and around trying his best with the helping strategy of barking as loud as he possibly could. I felt increasingly panicked wanting to help my kids, wanting to fix this. Finally, I realized that we just had to stop moving, stop trying to pull ourselves out, stop trying to save ourselves. The more we struggled, the more stuck we got. It was totally counter-intuitive, but we had to surrender to the mud and wait for Matt to come lift us out. I was reminded of that incident this week when I was walking through spring mud and pondering the Gospel reading for today.

In many ways, we are all so stuck. Stuck in racism, consumerism, violence. Stuck in sin. Our sin weighs us down and traps us. It separates us from one another. It holds us back from the abundant, everlasting life that God wants us to experience, that God wants all people to know.

Often when we are confronted with our sinfulness, we feel a sense of panic. When we see our racism and violence and all the ways we harm the earth and others, we want to defend ourselves, protect ourselves, do something quickly to fix things. We bark loudly, hoping that will help. Yet the way to God’s freedom and abundance for all is not found in trying to secure and save and preserve our own lives. It is not found in racing around and making a lot of noise. The way to God’s freedom and abundance is surrender.

Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The word hate that Jesus uses here doesn’t refer to emotions. It doesn’t mean Jesus wants us to despise ourselves. Rather, the word refers to detachment and separation from the ways of this broken world. Except we can’t detach and separate from this world’s ways on our own. The more we try to free ourselves, the more stuck we get. We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.

Thankfully, Jesus shows us another way – the way of the seed. Jesus describes how a seed falls into the earth, is buried and dies. If it doesn’t fall into the earth and die it remains just a small seed; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Jesus calls into this way of the seed. Jesus calls us to fall into the rich, dark soil of God, the source of all life. Jesus calls us to surrender, to die to our small selves, to let go of striving and struggling and entrust ourselves to God.

This can feel counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t we be working and striving against the sin that is within us and within the world? Shouldn’t we be doing something? We are indeed called to act and engage in the world. Yet for that action to bear fruit and bring life, we need to be grounded in God. We need to be deeply rooted in God’s love for the whole world. If we operate out of our own small, ego driven selves, we will not bear good fruit. We need to surrender into God so that our small, ego driven selves can die again and again.

Usually, the willingness to surrender only happens when we realize we are stuck, when we come up against the limits of our ability to fix things on our own. Many of us have come to that place during this difficult year. We’ve felt so overwhelmed by the magnitude of human sinfulness, violence, racism. We’ve felt so powerless in the face of it all. This year has been so painful and hard. Yet it is also fertile ground for drawing us into the way of the seed, the way of surrender, the way of dying to our small selves, the way of Jesus.

This way of the seed is not a way that we can choose and follow on our own. It is the work of Jesus to draw us into it. Jesus came among us and took this path of surrender. Now Jesus is present with us to accompany us on the way of the seed. Jesus is present to assure us that we can trust God, surrender to God.

Beloved of God,

Jesus is at work in all that is so painful and hard to draw you into God, into the source of all life.

Jesus is at work to help you fall into the rich, dark soil of God where you can wait and trust that God is bringing life for you and through you.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer and reflection.

Obituary for Sharon Rendack

Former member Sharon Rendack of Davenport, Iowa, passed away on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota following a short illness. Her obituary may be found HERE. A graveside service at the Lutheran Cemetery in Decorah, IA, will be held later this spring with Pastor Amy Larson officiating.