Sermon for Sunday, January 10, 2021 – “The Way of Love”

Baptism of Our Lord – First Sunday after Epiphany
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.

I give thanks that this week, after all the turmoil in our nation’s capital, we have the chance to reflect upon the power of baptism.

At first glance, baptism may seem removed from the issues of the day.  Yet, the gifts God gives us in baptism are the very gifts we need for the facing of this hour. In baptism God declares our true identity – be- loved child of God. This happened in Jesus’ baptism. It happens when we are first baptized and when we remember our baptisms. God speaks through scripture, through pastors called to proclaim on God’s be- half, and through the community. God speaks and acts in a concrete way to declare to you, “You are my beloved child.”

Baptism is not what first makes us God’s child. Every single person on earth is God’s beloved child. We are all created in love, made in God’s image. God looks upon each of us and declares us good. God commits to loving each one of us. Yet God knows we struggle to believe that we are loved by God. So God gives us the gift of baptism. God works in a way that we can feel and hear, through water and word, to proclaim over and over: You are my beloved child.

This identity is a gift. It is also a calling – a calling to be defined first and foremost by God rather than any- thing else. We are called to let our identity as God’s beloveds define the way we live and the way we re- late to others. It’s not easy to fully live out this identity that God has given us. There are so many other ways that the world defines us, that we define ourselves. We’re labeled by where we live – urban or rural, red state or blue. We’re identified by what we read, how we get our news, where we shop and how we eat. We’re defined by our jobs, genders, races, sexual orientations and politics.

Certainly all of those things are important, yet none of them encompass the fullness of who we are: You are more than a vegan, he is not only a Republican. Your boss is not just a gay person. Your neighbor is more than a police officer. We are all so much more than all these labels; they do not ultimately define us.

We are mysteries beyond comprehension. We are wondrously and fearfully made.

These identities cannot provide us with ultimate meaning. They can become false gods promising security, purpose and hope, yet leaving us empty. They can divide us. They can lead to hatred and even violence as displayed this week at the Capitol. We saw the evil that happens when tribal, political, religious and national identities become idols and weapons. This week was extreme, but the seeds of this violence lie within each of us. We so often claim privileged status for ourselves and diminish the humanity of those who differ from us.

The voice of God cuts through all of this. In the face of all that seeks to define and claim, drive and divide us, the voice of God rings out to say, “You are my beloved.” AND, “They, too, are my beloved.” Every single person, every person who stormed the Capitol this week, is a beloved child of God. Every single person, every politician who disgusts you, is a beloved child of God. God loves them. God loves each of us, not be- cause of what we do or how we vote or how we worship, but because of who God is and what God does. God has committed to love.

Love is not a warm fuzzy emotion that arises because someone is worthy. It is an action, a commitment, a choice. God has chosen the way of love. And God calls us to live as beloved children of God by living in the way of love. Love does not mean having warm feelings for someone or being nice. Love does not turn a blind eye to injustice in order to avoid conflict.

Love seeks wellbeing for all people by working to disrupt everything that divides and diminishes us. Love challenges all the white supremacy in our nation because it harms God’s people – people of color and white people. Love renounces the sin and evil that makes us doubt that we are God’s beloved, the sin and evil that leads us to treat others as anything less than God’s beloved.

Love is both humble and bold. It kneels before others who are loved by God yet stands with integrity and conviction.[1] We are created by Love, claimed by Love, called by Love. We are called to let Love define our identity and our actions.

The world will call you many things. The world will try to rename you. Today we echo the voice of the Triune God. Today we call you beloved of God. When we see you begin to wonder if this name is really yours, we promise to remind you: You are indeed God’s beloved child.

May our lives proclaim the truth that all people are God’s beloved children.



[1] Bishop Michael Curry used this image in a conversation with Krista Tipped and Dr. Russell Moore hosted by the On Being Project.

Sermon for Sunday, January 3, 2021 – “God’s Procession of Hope: Promise for 2021”

Second Sunday of Christmas
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.

How will we move through the year 2021? Even as we’re breathing a collective sigh of relief that 2020 is over, we have some trepidation about what the new year will be like. We long for life to return to normal. Yet throughout this pandemic, the collective rush to get back to normal before it’s safe has deepened the suffering from this virus. We long for life to feel normal, yet we’re aware that our pre-2020 normal was deeply problematic.

Can we enter into a more hopeful future?
Can we move through the year 2021 differently after all we’ve been through?

Our first reading, from the book of Jeremiah, speaks right into these questions. It speaks of return, restoration and a new normal for the people of God who’ve been experiencing trauma upon trauma. They’ve been living in exile in Babylon, far from home, for over four decades. They’ve been cut off from all their patterns of daily life, their ways of gathering and praying, and of being in relationship with each other and with God. They’re aware that even after they return they will face the lingering impact of the trauma. Many of their leaders have been disfigured and blinded by Babylonian displays of strength and power. Their homes and economy are in ruins.

Into all of this, the prophet Jeremiah speaks God’s word of consolation and promise. This word is for those exiles long ago, yet it is also for us today. Jeremiah paints a picture of a great company of God’s people returning from exile. We are part of this great company as we move into 2021.

There are some striking features about this promised grand movement of God’s people. It is a joyful pro- cession full of dancing and shouts of rejoicing almost like a parade, but no false cheer is required to join this parade. Instead, God proclaims, “With weeping they will come and with consolations I will lead them back … I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

Which is to say that in this parade there is room for all who weep, who mourn, who live with deep sorrow. We don’t have to put on some happy, clown face to be part of this parade. We don’t have to muster up a syrupy sweet positivity to scatter like tootsie rolls from a parade float. We don’t have to pull ourselves together before we can join the movement of God’s people. We can walk together into new life while sharing the stories of all that we have lost.

Jeremiah’s vision of a grand procession returning home also acknowledges the ongoing reality of the people’s condition. They can’t go back to who they were before, so God will bring them back as who they are now. We’re told, “The blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.” Which is to say, those most impacted by the Babylonians, those who were publicly disfigured and blinded by the conquering rulers, will be at the center of the procession home. The people will return not as a mighty army but as a great company of the forgotten, the disabled and the vulnerable.

These images remind us of our dependence upon God. We can’t enter into a hopeful future through sheer force of will, through the power of positive thinking or stellar new year’s resolutions, through our own effort. It is God who will gather us up and lead us like a shepherd into restoration and new life.

Finally, Jeremiah imagines this great company of people returning as a procession into worship. The people will be gathered in all the places of exile and led back into Zion, the place of worship. In this way, the people’s trauma is connected to a sense of liturgy. And the trauma leads to a reformation of their communal life as the people of God. God declares that those usually judged least suitable for leadership – the feeble and the vulnerable, the lowly and the wounded – will become the center of this new life. God affirms who is most valued in this new community, who should be protected and honored. And from this reformed worship life, God announces new patterns of wellbeing for all declaring, “They shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden … my people shall be satisfied with my bounty.”

In much the same way, our worship and communal life has been formed by the coming of the Christ child, a vulnerable child who leads us. At the center of our worship is a peasant born in a manger who sought refuge in Egypt, lived in poverty, and died at the hands of the state. This Jesus shares all the trauma of all the people of God. This Jesus has come among us to lead us into God’s promised future – a future in which the lowly are at the center and in leadership, protected and honored, a future of wellbeing for all people.

Beloved of God, as you enter 2021 hear this word of promise for you. You are part of the great company of God’s people moving into God’s promised future. All the sorrow you carry is welcomed in the procession. God’s word of hope and promise doesn’t ignore the losses you have faced. It names them. It honors them, providing us consolation right in the midst of them. New life is birthed right in the place of pain.

You do not have to chart the course to a hopeful future alone; we do not have to do this on our own. God carries us like a shepherd. God guides us into patterns of worship and community that lead to the flourishing of life for all – to life that is like a watered garden. We who are frail and vulnerable cannot live in these ways on our own. Our sin is too great. Yet we can rely upon God who has come to live among us in Jesus, the Christ child who leads us into God’s future.

This promise is for you, for us, and for all people today. With weeping we will come. With consolations God will lead us home.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

I am indebted to the commentary by Rev. Remy Remmers, “Tensions of Grief and Gladness”, on the D/SRUPT WORSHIP PROJECT blog


Sermon for Christmas Eve 2020 – “Good News Finds You”

Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Eve
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Luke 2:1-20

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

The first major celebration of Jesus’ birth took place in a field – not in the temple, not in some grand cathedral, but in a field where “there were shepherds living, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” The first Christmas worship happened right where those shepherds spent all their time, just as it’s happening for you tonight in the place where you live and work, go to school, and keep watch in the night.

That first Christmas, great joy erupted amidst a barren landscape. Worship began as an angel appeared to announce good news – a Savior has been born for you. Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host. The angels praised God with jubilant refrains that we now sing at Christmas: “glory to God in the highest” and “peace to God’s people on earth”.

This joyous occasion happened in a field – a field ripe with the muck of daily life, the place where these shepherds toiled and strained and hunkered down again and again, over and over. It happened amid yet another long, lonely, sleepless night. Those shepherds had to be ever vigilant,

always on alert as they kept watch over their flocks. There were so many dangers lurking in the shadows. Constant attention was required and yet everyday was the same as the day before. Their work was never done. They could never really get away and rest. Their life was one of loneliness and isolation.

Any of this sound familiar? God’s people have been in these hard places before, even at Christmas.

The shepherds did not expect joy that night. They were just trying to get by, to get through. But then, good news of great joy came to them, found them right where they lived. The angel brought God’s message. A savior is born who will shepherd you – who will carry you, tend and lead you, save you and all people from the sin that ensnares. Good news of great joy for the shepherds, for the world. Anthems of praise arose and surrounded them.

During that first Christmas worship in a field, the landscape of that field was transformed. Barren- ness gave way to joyous hope. The place of toil and strain became hallowed ground.

The landscape of those shepherds’ lives was also transformed. Routines of weariness and worry were disrupted. Hope sprang up in their hearts. They went with haste to Bethlehem to kneel be- fore the newborn savior, to share what they’d heard about this child. They could not contain what the angels had told them. Worship arose within them. Good news fell from their lips. Then they returned home, glorifying and praising God just as the angels had done. The song of the angels lingered with them.

As they returned to their fields there were still dangers in the night. Exhaustion and anxiety re- mained. Yet the ground beneath their feet had changed. There was something new on the horizon.

Joy had come to live with them through all the long nights. Hope had been born for them, disrupting despair. The angels’ song had become their own. The assurance of a Savior carried them, upheld them. They could move through the days and nights differently.

Dear people of God, you who are weary and worried, you who have spent too many lonely, sleepless nights with despair lurking close, tonight God’s message comes to you right where you live.

Good news finds you in the very place where you’ve been toiling and straining and keeping watch, the place where you’ve been hunkered down for months. Jubilant refrains erupt from your screen – the same screen that brought you presidential debates, task force briefings, scenes of violence and destruction and all manner of muck. The phone, the iPad used for doom scrolling, the laptop for endless Zoom conversations become hallowed ground.

The angels’ song interrupts your tedious routines, drowns out the headlines. Anthems of praise surround you tonight. Joy comes to live with you. Hope is born again for you and for us all.

A Savior is born. A savior who shepherds you, those you love and all people. A savior whose presence transforms the barren landscape of this whole weary world.

So tonight, let your song of joy arise.
Let good news fall from your lips.
Share in the wonder of this night.
The angels’ song will linger with you.
It will become your own refrain as you stand, where you live, on holy ground.

Sermon for Sunday, November 22, 2020 – “Encountering Jesus”

Christ the King Sunday
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.

When you think about Jesus, what images come to mind for you? Do you picture Jesus smiling while holding a sheep, surrounded by children, teaching on a mountainside, walking across the water? Does your mind go to a beloved stained glass window or a painting behind an altar? Those all are powerful images of Jesus, but they only tell part of the story.

Now call to mind;

  • a homeless person with a sign asking for food,
  • a child with a distended belly in a refugee camp,
  • an undocumented immigrant with fear in her eyes,
  • or a prisoner on death row.

Hold those pictures in your mind for a while because they, too, are images of Jesus. In this parable today, Jesus makes it clear that when we look at the face of a person in need, we glimpse Jesus’ face as well. It can be startling to envision Jesus this way.

In the past decade, sculptures of a homeless Jesus have been unsettling people throughout North America. These sculptures, created by artist Timothy Schmalz, look just like a homeless man lying under a blanket on a park bench. The only way you can tell it’s Jesus is by the nail marks on the feet. There are now a number of these sculptures on display outside churches around the world.

They’ve been met with mixed reviews. When the statue was first placed outside an Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina, one local woman who saw it at dusk thought it was a real homeless person. She called the police to report the presence of a vagrant in the neighborhood.

She was even more upset when she learned what the statue really was. “Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help,” she said. “We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy.”

The people in our parable today were also surprised by the thought that Jesus could be in need. Those who served others were shocked to learn they’d really been helping Jesus. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” Those who had ignored others had no idea that they were neglecting Jesus. They didn’t recognize Jesus in the marginalized and vulnerable.

What do we expect Jesus to look like?

The religion of popular culture tells us that Jesus is a nice, respectable, all-powerful miracle worker who meets our own personal needs. It tells us that if we’re nice and good and trust in a nice, gentle savior, then our lives will be nice and easy. But then Jesus shows up and startles us with who he really is and what a Christian life really looks like. And, it turns out this is truly good news for us and our world. If Jesus and a life following Jesus were just about being nice and good, then the Christian life would have little to do with a world that can be so ugly and painful, so in need of healing and new life.

And, if Jesus was just about miracles to make life happy and easy, then anytime things weren’t working out for us or for others we might think it was because God had abandoned us, abandoned them. Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t calmly smile at our world and say, there, there now, I’ll make it all better, go be nice. Instead, Jesus enters fully into all of what it means to be human, all the pain and suffering of our world.

Jesus of Nazareth was born as a vulnerable baby to poor parents who had to give him an animal’s feeding trough as a bed. His first two years he lived as a refugee fleeing from the jealous, murderous King Herod. He spent his ministry as an itinerant homeless preacher who had no place to lay his head. He spent his last days beaten, tortured and killed as an enemy of the state.

God then raised Jesus from the dead to be seated in honor and glory. Even still, Jesus promises to be found in the places of brokenness where people are hungry, thirsty, naked, alone and in prison. Jesus promises to always be with and for those who are the least and the lowly in our world. Jesus is where things are the hardest. And, Jesus calls us all to be there with him as well. The Christian life is one of following Jesus into the pain and brokenness of the world and offering healing, life- giving love. Jesus has entered fully into our deep need and brokenness. This shows us that God has not abandoned us in our pain and suffering. God is present in it. God is working new life in the midst of all of it.

And that’s hard. Of course, COVID makes it harder to know how to do these things Jesus calls us in- to, but the larger issue is that we’d so often rather avoid all the messiness of our own and other’s pain. We’d rather not go there. We worry that we don’t have enough time, energy, or love to really serve others and so we miss out on what truly sustains and feeds us – encounters with Jesus who is present in the needs of the world.

We, who have so much more privilege and material wealth than the least and the lowly in our world, have our own kind of poverty – a poverty of love, a poverty of Spirit that keeps us from really staying present to the needs of the world. We can and do opt out of caring, serving and working for justice.

So, thanks be to God, Jesus goes where there is poverty of any kind. Jesus is present in all the places where life is hardest, including our own hearts. We encounter Jesus not only in the needs of the world but also through word and sacrament and the body of Christ on earth. Jesus comes to us today to disturb and convict us, to forgive us, to feed and nourish us, and to send us out in service to a hurting world. Jesus comes to assure us that we have been claimed as God’s beloved children.

Because of Christ Jesus, we are God’s people, we are the sheep of God’s pasture. A place with God has been prepared for us and we have been given eternal life.

When we hear language about the eternal, we often think about what happens after we die. Yet, when Jesus talks about “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” in our parable today, that language is also about the quality of our life now, how we experience our life now. Jesus frees us from the punishing hell we experience when we live with poverty of love and Spirit, a hardness of heart, and selfishness.

Jesus gives us eternal life, a life in which we are fed by Jesus’ abundant love and prepared to be people of mercy and compassion. Jesus prepares a place for us with God. With this assurance that we have a place with God, we can “go there” when things are hard rather than opting out. We can be present to the pain of this world, trusting we have a savior who is there working new life.

Beloved of God,
Through Christ Jesus you are a sheep of God’s pasture, there is a place for you in God’s kingdom, you are given eternal life now and always. You can follow Jesus in all things, receiving and sharing the abundance of mercy and compassion that this world so needs.

Let’s take a moment of silent prayer. 

Sermon for Sunday, November 15, 2020 – “From Outrage into Community”

Twenty-fourth 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 begin, I should probably make it very clear that I did not choose these readings for this Stewardship Sunday. This Sunday, like every Sunday, we’re using the assigned readings for the day from the larger church’s common set of readings called the lectionary.

The lectionary helps keep preachers and congregations honest. We don’t get to just pick the readings we like, the ones that make us feel good, that reinforce what we already think. Today is a perfect example. I would have chosen texts that were a lot less angry, especially given what things are like in the US right now.

I’m feeling so weary of all the anger in our country, all the outrage around me and within me. I know so many of you share this weariness. Certainly, there are many reasons to be angry. And anger isn’t necessarily bad – it can provide focus and energy to address problems. Yet, right now it feels like we’re just stuck in outrage. There is such a focus on angrily calling people out for what they do wrong. This “call out” culture increases negativity and polarization. It can also leave us paralyzed – afraid to act or speak lest we do something that will provoke the outrage of others. Instead of calling each other out, I long for us to call each other in – into dialogue, into community where we can offer our gifts and work together for the common good.

Our scripture readings today speak to both being called out and called in.

In the reading from the prophet Zephaniah, God does call us out and convict us. God says, “I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’ ” God also says, “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” All that makes your friend’s angry Facebook posts sound like Mr. Rogers in comparison.

Scripture shows us that God does get angry because God is passionate about how we live together here on earth. God wants shalom for all. Shalom is a beautiful Hebrew word that means well-being, peace and justice for all of creation. God gets angry when human sin prevents shalom. We shouldn’t get complacent and assume that God is uninvolved, unimpacted by what we do. God cares deeply. God is passionate, a word that at root means to suffer. Scripture shows a God who suffers because of our sin.[1] And, God convicts us when we are lazy, complacent or complicit. That is good news for all who are oppressed.

Yet God doesn’t just call us out. In Jesus we see that our passionate God has chosen to be compassionate, a word that means to be with the suffering of others. God has entered into this world of sin and injustice to be with us, to call us in – into loving relationship, into life-giving community. In that relationship, in this community, God pours out faith, hope, love, joy and forgiveness. We are given all that we need to increase God’s shalom in the world and experience it ourselves.

In this way, God is like the Master in the gospel parable today who entrusts his workers with all his property, all that he owns. Each worker gets a major gift, one talent was equivalent to fifteen years of wages.

They don’t all get the same amount, but they all have major resources available to them. God also entrusts us with resources, talents, abundant gifts. We each have been given so much to make our world whole. God expects us to use these gifts, to invest ourselves in the world, to take risks for the sake of the world God so loves.

Yet, one of the workers in the parable chooses not to do anything with what he’s been given. Rather than gratefully receiving his gift and getting to work, he hides it. Rather than putting the gift to work, he ruminates about the master’s temperament and the situation. Perhaps he gets fixated on why he only got one talent rather than five, and feels sorry for himself. Maybe he thinks he doesn’t have enough for himself or enough to make a difference. Maybe he feels put upon by being asked to do something more when he feels like he’s already done enough. He confesses to a fear of not measuring up to the master’s expectations, that fear of being called out for doing something wrong that we know all too well.

I get all of these things. I’ve been to all those dark places; sometimes I go to each of them many times a day. But when I go to any of those places of fear, jealousy, inadequacy or avoidance, I miss out on entering into the joy God gives and on the chance to participate with God in making the world more just, more well. I find myself stuck in darkness, weeping, gnashing my teeth – outraged and despairing about the state of the world and my own heart. What little hope I did have is taken away.

But God does not leave me there.

God doesn’t leave us stuck in these places. God does not leave us buried. Our compassionate God continues to call us out from all the things that trap us, all the dark places we hide. God continues to call us into abundant life with Christ and into Christian community. God goes even further than calling us in, God actually draws us into the joy of God’s presence even when we are prone to resist. And, God continues to pour out the resources of faith, hope, love, joy and forgiveness into our hearts. Day after day, week after week in worship, God calls us out, draws us in, and pours out abundance upon us.

All of this allows us to be compassionate, hopeful, peaceful people in this difficult time. As people who have been convicted and forgiven, called out and drawn in, we have what we need to move beyond out- rage to enter into dialogue and relationships with others. We have what we need to offer ourselves to this world, working for God’s justice and God’s shalom.

Beloved of God, you who live with and among fear and outrage and despair, you are loved, you are held, you are claimed by our compassionate God.

You can invest in this world. You can be with and for others even when they are angry and unhelpful. You can give freely of yourself for this world that God so loves.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

[1]To read more about this, consider Terrance Fretheim’s book: The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Fortress   Press, 1984.