Sermon for Sunday, October 1, 2023   Eighteenth Sunday after  Pentecost

“Healing in Creation”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa

 

Click here to read story for today.

 

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

Is the Lord among us or not? the people asked themselves and Moses in the wilderness. There was no water, would they die in the wilderness? When water began flowing from a rock, they knew, yes, God is among us.

That’s wonderful for those people, back then. It’s good to know we have a God who can do such miracles. But what about us now? When large swaths of the earth face extreme drought while others recover from violent storms and flooding; when we’re feeling the impact of generations of trauma inflicted on so many bodies; when our government came to the brink of a shutdown because the divisions in the country are so great; it can feel like we’re wandering in a desert without hope, without help. Is the Lord among us or not? Does God still provide for us? Last I checked, healing waters were not flowing out of Pulpit Rock, and it doesn’t feel as if justice is rolling down like a mighty stream. Is the Lord among us?

This week I learned something that helped me see our story today differently. Apparently, water can and does still gush forth from rocks in desert regions if the rocks are struck hard enough. (If you’re interested in the science behind this, there’s a link to an article in the text of the sermon.[1]) The story isn’t revealing a God who did a flashy magic trick back then but leaves us high and dry now. It’s about our good God, our good Creator, who works through the healing capacities in creation to help us creatures.

Old Testament teacher Dr. Terence Fretheim writes, “God does not create water for the [Israelites] out of thin air, nor is the natural order disrupted. Water does in fact course through rock formations. And so, it is a matter of finding the places of flowing water. The actions of both God and Moses enable their hidden potential to surface. God leads Moses to help that is available in the world of nature.”[2] Dr. Fretheim and others make the case that manna in the wilderness, the pillar of fire and cloud, even the parting of the Red Sea can also be understood as God working through the good creation.[3] When the people ask, is the Lord among us or not? The answer is yes. God has been with them all along. What they need is there and has been all along, they just need their eyes opened to see it.

Does God provide for us still through the world of nature? Does God lead us to help that is available through the created order? Is the Lord among us? Our Indigenous siblings show us the answer is a resounding yes. They help us to see the Creator’s care for us. This fall, Good Shepherd members have been learning from the wisdom of Indigenous peoples who find healing through the natural world, even after generations of trauma. Many members have been sharing in Zoom sessions offered by ELCA’s Truth and Healing Initiative, and discussing them afterwards. In those discussions, Good Shepherd member Anne Clausen, our reader today, has been reflecting on what she learned through years in ministry with an Indigenous Lutheran congregation in Alaska.

Another Good Shepherd member, Bev Sheridan, attended the Women of the ELCA convention in September and got to learn from Dr. Kelly Sherman Conroy, the first Native Woman Theologian  in the ELCA with a Ph.D. Dr. Sherman Conroy writes a beautiful blog in which she offers wisdom shaped by both Lakota and Lutheran teachings. In one essay, she describes the healing she experi- enced on her grandparent’s ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

“When you entered my grandparents’ homestead,” she writes, “you were greeted by a towering tree line whose role in the life of the ranch was to be a protector. It protected the ranch from the strong and ever-changing seasons. And almost daily, the trees provided protection and comfort to a child who often looked for solace. I remember my tree, my friend, was always there to greet me. She created a chair for me, a spot that curved around me when I sat at her feet, almost like she was hugging me. Within her branches lived my friends, who would sing to me a beautiful song while the life around me would sing along. It was a beautiful choir that often can get neglected in our daily lives … I would breathe in, connect with the world around me, welcome that full moment of peace, of happiness …”

Sherman Conroy continues, “Find a place to walk or to sit, close your eyes and feel and listen to the world … Feel the breeze hug you gently. Hear the music of the world around you that God created. And breathe it in … Remember this closeness we have with our Creator through the world around us wherever we are. Live into this wisdom and let it give you the strength, hope, peace and healing you need.”[4] Is the Lord among us? Yes. The trees create chairs for us to rest and hear God’s choir. The breeze embraces us with God’s presence. In every moment, God is as close to us as our breath. God works through the ordinary gifts of creation, through bread, wine, water, the gathered community, Zoom, our larger ELCA. God works to forgive us and set us free so that we can be people who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

As poet Wendell Berry helps us to remember, what we need is here.

God is among us.

We can breathe in this good news.

We can help others to see God’s presence as we live in God’s ways.

 

[1] www.europhysicsnews.org/articles/epn/pdf/2005/03/epn05306.pdf

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-exodu  s-171-7-10

[3] www.europhysicsnews.org/articles/epn/pdf/2005/03/epn05306.pdf

[4] sacredthoughts.blog/2020/03/31/healing-owaste/

Sermon for Sunday, September 24, 2023   Seventeenth Sunday after  Pentecost

“Time Enough”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa

 

Click here to read story for the day.

 

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

I will give you enough food for each day, God tells the Israelites. On the 6th day, there will be enough for two days, so you can rest on the 7th day. Imagine how strange that sounded to the Israelites. For generations, they lived with a harsh daily quota: the number of bricks they had to make if they wanted to eat. In the wilderness, God gives them a new daily quota: the amount of food they’ll be provided each day. The Israelites left Egypt with a distorted relationship to time. Each day they had to produce what their task masters demanded so that they could consume enough.

 

In the wilderness, God works to heal their pressured, productivity-focused relationship with time. God helps them receive the gifts of each day. God teaches them how to rest. God does the same for us, for us who also have a fraught relationship with time. When I worked at Luther College, I remember many days that were entirely filled with meetings. Those days, just looking at my Google calendar would fill me with dread. I knew I’d leave each meeting with even more tasks on my to-do-list, but when would I have time to do them?

What do you feel when you look at your calendar, planner, or date book? Do the days feel too empty? Too full? Or maybe both? Empty of what brings meaning and full of drudgery. Sometimes we feel enslaved by our calendars and lists, like they are unrelenting task masters with demands we can never satisfy. I’ve been learning about this lately from Tricia Hersey, a black woman who says that rest is resistance to our capitalist, consumeristic system that is based on a plantation system of production. Hersey has developed a nap ministry to help us resist being enslaved to production and consumption.[1]

Our calendars can also become a source of pride or despair, a way of measuring whether or not we are valued, worthy, loved. Calendars train us in a certain way of viewing time. We begin to see time as a sequence of little boxes, each waiting to be filled. We start to think, I own my time. My role is to manage it wisely and determine what goes where.

 

A wise teacher, Dorothy Bass, writes, “Making good use of the time we are given is important, to be sure … But when our emphasis on using time displaces our awareness of time as a gift, we find that we are not so much using time as permitting time to use us.”[2] We are not slaves to time. We are not masters of time. We are beloved children of a generous creator, a creator who gives us the gift of time so that we will serve creation and rest. Time is like manna. It’s given to us fresh each new morning as a gift. Listen as I read an adaptation of our story today, substituting the word time for the word manna. This adaptation is offered by Dorothy Bass.

 

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain hours, time from heaven for you, and each day the people shall rise up and have time enough for that day … On the sixth day, when they gather up time, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, draw near to the Lord, who has heard your complaining about lack of time.” The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “At twilight you shall eat with plenty of time, and in the morning you shall have your fill of time stretching out before you; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” In the evening time came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of time upon the camp. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” Moses said to them, “It is the time that the Lord has given you. This is what the Lord has commanded: Take as much time as you need for the day.”’ Those who had too much time on their hands measured it in hours and had nothing left over, and those who had little time discovered they had no shortage, they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of the time over until morning.” But they did not listen to Moses; some used up the hours of the night until morning, and the time became to them foul; for they were tired and irritable. The house of Israel called it “time”; it was a new gift every day. (Adapted from Exodus 16:4—31.)[3]

 

What would it look like to receive time as a gift? To begin each day be giving thanks for the time God has given you and asking God to provide the energy and rest you need? Would this remind you that your worth is not dependent on how much or how little you produce? Would this help you pay attention to the wonderful creation that is your body, to know we have a good and gracious creator who works to set us free?

In the book of Deuteronomy, God’s people are told to rest on the seventh day as a reminder that God saved them from slavery. In a culture where we can feel oppressed by time, the command to rest is a form of liberation. Today this commandment can work as God telling us, I have set you free from the tyranny of time, of work, achieving, producing. This command also calls us to ensure we’re helping others to get time to rest. 

In our 24-7 culture, when do people in lower income jobs get to rest? When a mom must work three jobs to feed her family, when does she experience time enough? Our rest is never intended simply to serve our own needs, it is to invigorate us for service in God’s way, for the work of liberation and justice. We also may have to say no to certain things in order to rest. It may be that God’s to-do list for us is shorter than the one we have for ourselves. As we sit with our calendars, lists, and date books, it’s wise to ask what brings energy, what drains energy, what is mine to do, what can be let go?  

 

Beloved of God, you are not a slave to time.

You aren’t called to master time.

You are the beloved child of a creator who gives you the gift of time so that you can live out Christ’s way of love in a hurting world.

 

[1] Learn about Tricia Hersey and the Nap Ministry here: thenapministry.wordpress.com/about/

[2] Dorothy C. Bass Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 2.

[3] Dorothy C. Bass, Lani Wright, and Don C. Richter Receiving the Day Guide for Conversation, Learning and Growth (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 17-18.

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.