Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 2021 – “Seeing Differently”

Third 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.

Before we were married, my husband Matt moved to Western North Dakota for a year of pastoral internship. Many of our seminary classmates were relieved that he was the one who got sent to a town of 26 people. I much preferred my internship site outside of Chicago. And when I went to visit Matt that year, I spent a lot of time making it clear that I would not be moving there after we graduated from seminary.

But Matt absolutely loved the people and the landscape of Western North Dakota. When he first drove into Divide County, he was struck by the beauty of it all. Not only were there actual amber waves of grain, there were also these gorgeous yellow flowers everywhere. Thankfully Matt held his tongue before commenting on the beauty of these flowers. Within just a few days he heard a farmer complaining about the wild mustard everywhere. It turns out that those yellow flowers were a very invasive weed that the famers spent a great deal of time and money trying to remove. Matt was glad he hadn’t shown his ignorance and he still secretly enjoyed the beauty of those bright yellow flowers everywhere.

When Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, I wonder if people in his day thought he was ignorant and even a little ridiculous. Shouldn’t the kingdom of God be compared to the lofty cedar tree mentioned in our first reading? Shouldn’t it be described as something grand and glorious rather than an invasive weed? In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus shows us that the Kingdom of God is not what we expect. It is surprising, unexpected and even downright subversive to the ways of this world. The Kingdom of God spreads and grows and seeps in every which way and cannot be removed no matter how hard this world tries.

In this parable, Jesus also asks us to see differently – to see that a weed the world would uproot can provide shelter for the birds, that it can help us to better understand God’s kingdom. Much of the Christian life involves learning to see differently. We come to see that the cross, a symbol of death and torture, is actually the tree of life that leads to the healing of the nations.

We discover that Jesus’ gifts of bread and wine are the bread of life and the cup of salvation. We practice seeing one another as the body of Christ on earth and seeing all people as God’s beloved children. We learn to see differently. I think this is part of what Paul is getting at when he says, From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view … for in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Faith helps to see God’s new creation all around us and in one another. Over this past challenging year, I have been so grateful for people who practice seeing differently. Last fall, a Good Shepherd member reached out to me to express frustration that the church building was still closed. We had a good conversation about why that was, but I knew he was still feeling troubled. A few weeks later that member sent me an email. He wrote, “Over the past week I have seen you on four different Zoom meetings and online worship. I recognize that so much is still happening even though we are not meeting for in-person worship. I see God working in our congregation. I want to say that I see you and how hard you’re working. I want to say thank you.”

This member was practicing seeing differently. Rather than fixating on his worries for the congregation and his own pain about not being able to gather, he chose to look for signs of God at work in unexpected and surprising ways. Rather than focusing on the faults of his pastor, he chose to regard me and treat me as a sibling in Christ. That email was a tremendous blessing to me. It is a gift to be regarded with love and gratitude. It helped me to be kinder with myself and others.

It is so easy to focus on everything that is wrong and troubling and upsetting. We are captive to sin and so prone to judgment, critique and stereotypes. Yet God gazes upon us all with such extravagant love and declares again and again, you are my beloved child, I delight in you.

God sees the beauty and the good within us and works to bring it to fruition. God’s loving gaze is what allows us to see God’s new creation in the world, in one another. It is what empowers us to practice love and gratitude rather than judgement and critique.

Beloved ones, today God says to you: “I see you. I see you and all the beauty within you. I see you and I love you. You are my beloved child. You are a new creation. See that new creation at work all around you.”

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, June 6, 2021 – “Drawn Into Belonging”

Second 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.

Who is inside and who is outside? That’s a key question to ask of the stories in the Gospel of Mark. Mark helps us see that Jesus is all about disrupting our perceptions of insiders and outsiders. Sometimes that happens on a more metaphorical level but our story today has an actual door separating insiders from outsiders.

Outside the door stand Jesus’ mother and siblings and some scribes. They represent the major pillars of society – the family and the synagogue. You’d expect them to be the insiders, but they remain outside.

Inside the door, Jesus is having a meal with his newly called ragtag bunch of disciples. Those inside also include a whole crowd of people who’ve come together, desperate for help from Jesus. These likely are people who’ve been cast out by society and their families because they’re sick or demon possessed. They have profound needs. They’re pressing around Jesus so much that he can’t eat.

The unruly mob has Jesus’ family concerned. The family is also hearing some strange things about Jesus: people saying he is out of his mind, the scribes claiming he is possessed by Satan. Jesus is be- ing so disruptive, not acting like you’d expect a man of God to behave. This is all troubling to Jesus’ mother and siblings. They come to intervene but, as Mark makes a point of telling us, they remain standing outside. Why don’t they just go inside to talk to Jesus?

Maybe they’re afraid of these people and all their needs. Maybe they want to be of help, but just aren’t sure what to do. Maybe they’re worried about what the scribes will say about them if they join the crowd inside. For whatever reason, Jesus’ mother and siblings stay outside and summon Jesus to come to them.

Jesus responds with a gesture that takes in all those inside seated around him: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” In that simple gesture, Jesus disrupts and reorders major social norms.

The social pillar type people are no longer the insiders with all the influence. Those the world views as outsiders are given a central role. They are drawn into belonging, given a new family.

And, this does not mean that those standing outside are excluded. Jesus works to draw them, and all of us, into life as the family of God.

Pr. Steve Garnaas-Holmes puts it this way: In a culture where family is right up there with God, maybe higher, Jesus says, “Yeah, family is it. But family isn’t blood. It’s love.” … No more tiny family with my little fence around those who I care for, who I’m responsible to. Instead, you give me this infinite family. All those who follow you differently than I do, I belong to them. We are one. I am to care as much about strangers as my own sister, respect opponents no less than my own brother, honor people so unlike me as my own mother. And this miracle, though it seems hard to love them all as if they are mine, when I do, I come home.

Jesus works to draw us all into this way of belonging to God and to one another. Yet so often we re- main standing outside. Sometimes we are the desperate, hurting ones who know we need Jesus, who have no choice but to rely upon Jesus and others. Yet so often we remain outside, concerned about the things we hear about Jesus. He is so radical, so disruptive. Really, it’s better to make changes gradually and take social norms seriously. We stand outside judging. Maybe we’re afraid of people with so many needs. We want to be of help, but just aren’t sure what to do. Maybe we’re   worried about what others will say about us. Maybe, honestly, we’re concerned about losing our influence and standing. Maybe if they get help there won’t be enough for me.

Whatever the reason, certainly we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Certainly, there are evil powers in this world – powers that manifest today as white supremacy, homophobia, ableism, sexism. These powers work to keep us divided, to keep us separated from God and from one an- other. We are captive to sin, bound by evil that conspires to keep us outside of the life God intends for us to know.

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t stand outside all this hoping things will change. Jesus enters into this world to confront the powers of this world, to bind them up and cast them out. In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has entered the strong man’s house, Satan’s house, to restrain evil and cast it out from within each of us. Jesus works to set us all free: those standing outside judging, those in the desperate crowd, all of us.

Each week in worship, Jesus proclaims words of forgiveness and freedom to each of us. These words, this simple gesture, reorders our hearts and our lives. We are set free from the power of sin and assured that we are claimed by God and filled with the Holy Spirit.

By the power of the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus, nothing can keep us outside of God’s love. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, nothing is unforgivable.

Whether you feel like one of those in desperate need of Jesus or one of those who is standing outside, Jesus is present today to set you free and draw you in. You belong to God and the whole family of God. You can live out the love that God wills for us to know and to share.

Sermon for Sunday, May 30, 2021 – “The Family of God”

The Holy Spirit – First Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Martin Klammer, Guest Preacher

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the Christian belief in the unity of the Father, Son,   and Holy Spirit as one God in three persons. It’s a central part of the Christian faith, but frankly it’s not a concept that many people understand—myself included.

There’s a story about a religion class where the teacher asked if anyone could explain the Trinity. Sev- eral students raised their hands. After each student spoke, the teacher said, “Wrong, that’s heresy, next.” Finally, the teacher said to the class: “Your wrong answers have made my point: It’s impossible to explain the Trinity without getting it wrong.”

Where did this core belief of Christianity come from? To what extent and in what ways can we under- stand it? And, finally, what does it mean for us as a community of believers?

To begin with, it’s interesting that the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible. There are, though, six references in the New Testament to a threefold God. Perhaps the most important one is at the end of the gospel of Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

But how God could be both three beings yet one God was not something the New Testament authors concerned themselves with. Our reading from today’s gospel suggests a Triune God:

  • Jesus tells Nicodemus “You must be born from above,” suggesting a parent
  • Jesus also speaks of being “born of water and the Spirit.”
  • The story then goes on to include Jesus’s memorable words in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

So, here are the three “persons” of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But nowhere in John or any- where in the New Testament do we find an explanation of how God is both three and one at the same time.

The doctrine of the Trinity actually developed in the first few hundred years of the early church. Early church leaders had to make sense of the fact that Christians worshipped Jesus Christ as divine but also continued to believe there is one God. God the Father and God the Son—yet only one God? How could this be?

The doctrine of the Trinity was in fact triggered by a heresy. A priest in the 4th century named Arius taught that although Jesus was divine, he did not always exist but was begotten in time by God the Father—that is, Jesus was not eternal along with God the Father. Arius was excommunicated for spreading this idea, but many bishops followed his views, so the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in the hope of ending the controversy. Arius was condemned, and Jesus as the Son of God was declared to be “of the same substance with the Father. That’s how it came to be that we confess the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father . . .

From the belief that Jesus was divine and eternal, it was just a short step to assert that the Holy Spirit was also divine and eternal. So, by the end of the 4th century, the doctrine of the Trinity was fully
established: God is one substance and three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that while Christians believe in an eternal Holy Trinity, the belief itself was established after the time of Jesus on earth.

But what does it actually mean that God is one substance and three persons? The church has tried various ways to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The three-person God has been likened to:

  • a triangle
  • or a three-leaf clover,
  • or a three-note musical chord.

Some try to explain the idea of the Trinity by comparing it to three forms of water—ice, liquid, or steam. My own experience of trying to understand the Trinity goes back to the conservative Lutheran church I grew up in. On Holy Trinity Sunday we extra devout Lutherans recited the Athanasian Creed. The Athanasian Creed was composed in the 5th century to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity. It is rarely recited, and for good reason: it’s six times as long as the Apostles’ Creed. I remember as a child wondering if it would ever end. Part of it goes like this:

The catholic [or universal] faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost . . . The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal . . . So likewise the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.

It goes on like this for several minutes. The repetition helped it sink in, but I’m not sure the
Athanasian creed ever helped me understand the Trinity. In any case, though I know we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, I can’t help thinking that if you’ve recited the Athanasian Creed a few times in life you might earn some extra credit points when you get to heaven.

Ultimately, the Holy Trinity is a mystery which perhaps cannot be fully explained or understood. In the classic African novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, British missionaries come to the Ibo people in Nigeria, bringing with them the message of the Christian faith. Achebe writes:

There was a young lad who was captivated [by the missionaries]. His name was Nwoye . . . It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated Nwoye. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow . . . He felt a relief within [him] as the hymn [they sang] poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melt- ing on the dry palate of the panting earth.

Perhaps we are not meant to comprehend every aspect of our faith. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus about the action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with every- one who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus is playing on the Greek word pneuma, which means both wind and spirit. Although we can see the effects of the wind, or of the Spirit, we cannot see what causes these effects. There is something mysterious about it. Likewise, with the Holy Trinity. We cannot fully comprehend the mystery of one God in three persons, but we can see and feel the presence of God in various ways:

God the Father is God over us, the Creator and who is beyond human understanding.

God the Son is God with us, through Jesus Christ who entered our human world.

God the Holy Spirit is God in us, the living force of God in our lives and in the world. The Holy Spirit inspires us, brings us to a new life, and gives us strength in times of difficulty.

How might we best understand the meaning of the Trinity for how we live our lives as Christians? I once heard a sermon in which the pastor compared the Trinity to a family. The Trinity is a family of three equals—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who share one, eternal life.

If God in three persons is like a family, are we not a family too? For we are made in the image of God. As Christians we are a family of individual persons who share one life—called to love one another and to serve the world as the image of God. We are, each of us, unique individuals, but we live within the family of faith, stronger together than we ever could be apart. Living as such, we emulate and honor the family of the Triune God.

May we open ourselves to live in the image of God and in the Spirit of family, now and always.


Sermon for Sunday, May 23, 2021 – “The In-Dwelling of the Holy Spirit”

The Day of Pentecost 
Last Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Vicar Kathryn Thompson

Beloved of God, grace, peace, and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you this day and every day.  Amen.

I wonder when you last had a moment of pause in creation. Maybe it was taking the time to pause next to the river to hear the sound of the water flowing. Perhaps it was listening to the sound of the birds singing after the rain cleared this week. Or, maybe it was the feel of the spring breeze through your hair as your scalp lifted in sensation. What was the most recent moment you had where you were drawn into the awareness of a presence – a presence beyond your own awareness.

In our daily comings and goings, the Spirit is present always and is with us as God personally present in our lives. The Spirit is there whether we have an awareness of it or not. And while we know that the Spirit comes to specific individuals for specific tasks for a specific duration of time, I am most interested in pondering, on this Pentecost Sunday, the deep knowledge of the Spirit that comes and stays and dwells.

The Spirit comes to us first and foremost in creation. It brings to life all of creation, as “the wind of God that swept over the face of the waters” in Genesis 1: 2. So, too, is the Spirit in creation of our very own beings. God breathed life into you at the moment of creation. From matter – from dirt and mud and clay – came humankind, living beings formed from the breath of God who breathed life into our bones, our lungs, our emotions, our minds, our hearts.

This is also mirrored in the Psalm for today, which says: “29When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. 30When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”

The fullness of who we are created to be was formed in the Spirit. It is there at our earthly beginning and at our earthly end – in the draw of our first breath and the release of our last. At any given moment in time, the Spirit is as close as our breath, accessible to us in our created being as the presence of God. It has the power to send us out as far and wide as the winds that move through the cosmos. It has the humbleness to remind us that God is present not only in our joy, but also in our pain and in our sorrow, in our grief, and in our sadness.

It is the Spirit that is there in your created being as you move through the Wilderness times of your life. Those times when we would much rather go it alone. We’d much rather rely on our mechanisms of survival. We’d much rather “just get through it.” But, it is the Spirit that is there in that moment to make sure that our life does not go stagnant, does not dry up or go sour. For even when we don’t feel the Spirit, it is there Advocating on our behalf — moving our life in ways beyond our knowing in these shadowed times, interceding with sighs too deep for words, and moving our life toward relationship with God.

It is the Spirit that is there at the crossroads times in our lives, when life decisions rest on our shoulders like a burden we aren’t sure we can bear. In those moments, when clarity seems out of reach and the consequences of our action or inaction confound us, the Spirit is present to testify to the truth, to guide us to the gentle knowing of our created beings that were formed in God. In these moments, we rest in the assurance that God will never ask of us something that isn’t consistent with who we are created to be in the image of God.

It is the Spirit that is there when we long for something more concrete in our lives. Much like the disciples in today’s passage, we often long to grasp on to something real and tangible. All we want are answers, and all we desire is understanding. When our human minds search for the explainable, the Spirit is present to remind us that our faith is more than answers, our faith is more than under- standing, our faith is more than grasping. Our faith is more than our brain. It is heart and soul; it is trust and doubt; it is comfort; and it is challenge. It is full of the great Mystery.

It is the Spirit that is here with us in community. Just as the Spirit was with the early church, as portrayed in the Acts passage today, the Spirit is here with us in the 21st century church today. The Spirit is moving and acting in new and varied ways now, relevant for our time and place in the story of history. But it has never and will never stop asking us to show up for the oppressed, speak out for the marginalized, and fiercely defend the creation that God so loves. As we seek to be church in the world, we open ourselves to the power of the Spirit in and through us to fulfill our baptismal promise: to work for peace and justice for all of creation.

It is the Spirit that is present with us in silence. It sits by our bedside or with us by the bedsides of those we love, holding the liminal space between this world and the next.

It is the Spirit that carries our prayers, connects us in love, and holds us in care.

We need not wait for the Spirit to come. We need not wait for Pentecost Sunday to experience the presence of the Spirit with us. When we look out into the world and when we look into our lives, we need only to put on our spiritual lens in order to be able to see the power of the Spirit at work. Some- times that lens comes in the form of hindsight, a pure 20/20 vision of that which we could not see in the moment. And sometimes that lens comes from a moment of pause where you felt a presence from beyond.

The Spirit is with you. It is not a gift from God, but rather it is God — fully and relationally present in your life, now and always.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, May 9, 2021 – “The Gift of Joy”

Sixth Sunday of Easter
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.

Our Gospel reading today is part of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his death. The church returns to these words during the Easter season to reflect on them in light of the resurrection. Jesus has a lot to say. His farewell speech takes up four chapters in the gospel of John.

Today we learn one of Jesus’ hopes for this long goodbye. “I have said these things to you,” Jesus explains, “so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” If I was one of Jesus’ first disciples, I think I would have had some questions when he started talking about joy right then.

What do you mean Jesus? You’ve just been telling us you’re going to be betrayed, tortured, and killed. The people who want to kill you probably want us dead, too. We’ve learned to love you and trust you and hope in you, but now you’re saying goodbye, way too soon. And you’re talking about joy? Come again?

Joy can seem a little inappropriate in the face of death. Joy can seem hard to access in difficult times. Yet Jesus wants his disciples, all of us, to have joy: joy in the face of death, joy amidst sorrow and fear and uncertainty, joy within us, joy that is complete. Jesus wants this for us.

And thankfully, joy does not depend upon us. It doesn’t depend on whether we think it is appropriate, whether we can summon it up. Joy is a gift from God. The biblical word for joy has the same root as the word for grace. Just as grace is a free, undeserved gift not dependent on anything we do, so too is joy.

I wonder if joy is what grace feels like in our bodies. Grace is such good news, but it is kind of abstract and heady. Joy is a tangible experience of grace. I remember feeling joy again after a very difficult time in my life. My mom died suddenly in November.  A few months later, we learned my dad’s kidney cancer had returned. I’d been in a fog for months. I was oblivious to the start of spring that year.

And then one day, while walking to work, crab apple blossoms on a tree caught my eye. I felt joy arising from deep within me. I hadn’t been paying attention. I hadn’t been able to take deep breaths or meditate. I was hardly able to pray. I had done nothing to choose joy. Joy just welled up within me that day as my eyes were drawn to a glorious gift of God’s creation. My shoulders felt lighter. I lifted up my head and noticed crab apple blossoms everywhere. I could breathe deeply for the first time in a long while. Now, to this day crab apple blossoms look and smell like joy to me.

Joy is pure gift, pure grace, that does not depend upon us. And there is so much that gets in the way of joy. So, thanks be to God, Jesus gives us what we need to experience and participate in God’s gift of joy more fully.

First, Jesus calls us to abide, to dwell, in a loving relationship with our creator where we can rest and breathe and be nourished. When we are struggling to experience joy, Jesus invites us to simply abide in God’s love, to be nurtured by God’s gifts. These gifts include rest, prayer, worship, creation, community, therapy, music, poetry, food, exercise, modern medicine. Medications that tend to our mental health are incredible gifts of God. Community is such an important gift. In community, others can pray for us, others can hold onto hope on our behalf when we can’t imagine ever feeling joy again. If you are struggling to know joy, just rest in God today. This community will hold on to hope for you.

Jesus also calls us into ways of being that help us and others to experience joy. Jesus commands us to love others as God loves us – to love freely, without judgement, without expecting others to earn love – and to live out grace and mercy for the sake of others. Jesus commands us to give of ourselves, especially for those who are suffering most.

This is a joyful way to be in the world. It isn’t something we can muster up on our own. We can live this way because God gives us what we need to love when it is hard, when we are afraid. We can live this way because God’s grace frees us from sin and empowers us to address racism, injustice, poverty, suffering. We are loved so that we can love others.

Joy is God’s gift to all people, to you. Joy does not depend upon you. It is not something you have to summon on your own. Joy will come unbidden and lift you up. Jesus also gives you what you need to experience and participate in joy more fully. Jesus draws you into relationship with God and into a joyful, loving way of being in the world.

Jesus wants you to know joy – joy in the face of death, joy in the face of sorrow and fear and uncertainty, joy within you, joy that is complete.

Today, Jesus’ word comes to you that you may know joy.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.