Sermon for Sunday, May 12, 2019 – “Not Abandoned”

Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 12, 2019
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 Good Shepherd.

Tabitha, the disciple we heard about in our first reading, reminds me of a radiant Zimbabwean woman named Paulina. Paulina’s life and work help me to picture Tabitha’s life among the widows of Joppa.

I met Paulina when I spent a semester in Zimbabwe during seminary. She led a woman’s cooperative that I visited. Most of the women in the cooperative had been widowed by AIDS, shunned by society, and left without any protection because of the failings of the legal system.

These rural women had married their husbands in traditional ceremonies in the village – ceremonies that carried no legal status under Zimbabwean law. Their husbands had then followed the common practice of living in the city during the week to make money and returning to their families on the weekend. Often their husbands would marry another woman in the city in formal legal ceremonies that were recognized by the government. They’d also usually have a number of other partners in the city and often would contract HIV/AIDS. When they died, all of their assets went to their wives in the city. The only thing passed on to the rural wives was HIV.

Yet the widows in this cooperative had not given up. They’d pooled their meager resources to launch business ventures including garment sales and repair, produce sales, traditional arts and craft production and sales. Over time, they’d been able to build a school room and hire a teacher to educate their children.  

A few friends and I got to spend a week living with these women. And I got to know their leader, Paulina. It was striking to me that Paulina was not a widow. She and her school teacher husband had three children and while they were not rich, they had much more money than the widows.

Many women in Paulina’s situation had very little contact with widows. They’d maybe employ one to be a domestic worker and give a handout to a few others, but mostly seemed to fear too much contact with them. They wouldn’t even look at them directly. Yet Paulina, a strong Christian, couldn’t separate herself from the widows. “We’re all women, she said, we must stick together”. Paulina also saw gifts in the widows that others did not. She realized these women could do so much more together. So, she facilitated a gathering for them and the idea for the cooperative was born. Slowly the women came to believe in themselves and in what they could accomplish. Paulina made her home among them to support and encourage them.

Tabitha, too, lived and worked among the widows of Joppa. We’re told she was a disciple like Peter, James and John. As good Jews, all of the disciples cared about widows. Widows in the ancient world faced many of the same challenges as rural Zimbabwean widows, so the Hebrew scriptures emphasize the care of widows. Jesus’ followers took this seriously. The 12 disciples even created the role of deacon in response to a concern that widows weren’t getting enough to eat in the daily distribution of food. Seven men were appointed to the role.

But Tabitha did more than just give the widows food, more than care for them, she was with them. She lived with them. She made clothes with them. She shared life with them. I imagine her being among them as Paulina was among the widows of Zimbabwe – listening, hoping, seeing them with new eyes as beautiful, capable people.

Tabitha’s life among the widows gave them great hope. When she died, they felt abandoned and alone. They sent for help. Peter came and prayed and called Tabitha back to life.

God, working through Peter, breathed new life into Tabitha’s way of being with others. God affirmed her ministry, raising her up to continue it. God also said to the widows, “I see you. I am with you; you are not abandoned.”

When we face struggle and loss, it’s so easy to feel abandoned and alone. And, this story can some- times make it even harder because our loved ones aren’t raised from the dead the way Tabitha was. Yet, I think the good news of this story is not so much that Tabitha was raised, but that God saw the widows and said, “I will not leave you alone and forsaken. I am with you now in my servant Tabitha, raised from the dead. And, even after she is gone, I am always with you.”

Tabitha was raised but she didn’t live forever. Her life ended again and she remained dead.

Still after her death, God did not abandon the widows and leave them forsaken. God was with them still through the community of the church. God was with them still through the Holy Spirit that was poured out on the church, the Spirit Jesus promised to send so that the disciples would not be abandoned.

God was with them through the presence of the risen Christ, the Good Shepherd, leading them beside still waters, restoring their souls. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, they were not alone.

Beloved, God is with you in these same ways, as well.

God is present in this community where we can be with each other and for each other like Tabitha and Paulina – where we can share life together. In this community we get to practice seeing each other with the eyes of love and honoring one another as beautiful, capable people. We get to practice listening, encouraging, and hoping. We learn to pay attention to how God is with us through the power of the Spirit and the presence of the risen Christ.

The Spirit poured out on the church is present still with us today, as close to us as our breath. The Spirit is at work to help us use our gifts, to empower us to be with and for other people. The Spirit works in us to lift others up.

God is with us still through the presence of the risen Christ, our Good Shepherd. Our Good Shepherd has led us today to these still waters where we can find rest. He has guided us on the right paths to this place where a table is prepared for us. Even though fear, grief, pain and sorrow stalk, Christ feeds us in the presence of these enemies and pours love overflowing into us.

God is with you. God is for you. You can be with and for others by the power of the Spirit.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer. Amen.

Sermon for Sunday, May 5, 2019 – “The Story Continues”

Third Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, I0wa
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. Amen.

I really love Superhero movies. So last weekend I was one of millions of people around the world who watched the latest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Avengers: End Game. I know these movies aren’t for everyone, but I want to tell you about one aspect of them to help us enter our Gospel reading today. No knowledge of Marvel or the Avengers is needed on your part!

This movie was three hours long, and people were warned ahead of time to manage their fluid in- take so as to avoid needing to leave mid-movie. After three intense hours, plus previews, you’d think everyone would rush out of the theater when the movie ended, heading straight to the bath- room. But no, most everyone stayed in their seats waiting for extra movie scenes in the middle or at the end of all the credits. Every other Marvel movie made in the last 11 years has at least one extra scene, sometimes two. Usually these scenes tie in something that happened earlier in the Marvel universe or advanced the arc of the story. They set up what is coming next with great fore- shadowing and cliffhangers.

And since there have been 22 Marvel movies in 11 years, people have been well-trained to expect that little extra fun. People remained seated, waiting for it.

But this most recent movie, Avengers: End Game, has no extra scenes. When the credits end, the lights go on, the movie and the great saga of the Avengers is over. There will be other Marvel mov- ies but many of the beloved characters won’t be in them. Fans have known this was last Avengers movie, but without an extra scene it really hits home. This is it. It’s all over.

As my family’s been talking about the movie all week, I’ve been thinking that our Gospel reading today is a lot like an extra scene after the credits of a movie. It comes after what seems like the end of the Gospel of John. Jesus rises from the dead and appears to his followers three times – to Mary Magdalene and then to the male disciples twice. Three is a good symbolic number; it’s a wrap.

After those resurrection accounts we read: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The end. Roll credits. Time to head to the bathroom.

But then we hear, “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias.” Wait, there’s more. The story isn’t over. What follows works like an end-scene of a Marvel movie. It pulls in a bunch of different themes from the larger story and it sets up what is to come in the story of Jesus that still continues to this day. This is the end of John, not the end of the good news about Jesus, and it points to what is still to come, even now, for us today.

Just about everything that happens in this end-scene connects back to something earlier in the Jesus story. The disciples fish all night and come up empty, their hopes dashed, until Jesus appears on the scene. Once he shows up, there’s abundance and life busting out all over the place.

Something really similar happened three years earlier, the first time these guys met Jesus, when he called them to follow him. In this scene, Jesus feeds the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias with a meal of bread and fish, the same things he used to set a great feast for 5000 hungry people on the same shore earlier in the story.

During Jesus’ life, he was all about feeding and tending people, all about fullness where there was only emptiness, hope when all seemed lost. This end-scene sets us up to expect that this will continue. And beloved it has, it does. The risen Jesus continues to show up for you, even today, in word and song, bread and wine, and his body the church, to feed and nourish you. The risen Jesus comes to you today to fill you and give you hope. There is so much more to your story and to the world’s story than emptiness and despair. Jesus is present and at work in our world – still feeding, tending, providing. There’s another aspect to this end-scene. Jesus prepares a charcoal fire, and it was around a charcoal fire when Simon Peter denied being a disciple of Jesus, three times.

Here Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”, and three times tells Peter to feed and care for his flock of lambs and sheep. As he does this, he assures Peter he is forgiven and restores Peter back into the fold of the disciples. Jesus also charges Peter with continuing his own work. Earlier in the story, Jesus has said that he is the Good Shepherd. Now he tells Peter to do the work of being a good shepherd for his flock. Jesus asks Peter to take the abundance he’s received and share it with others.

Here we see an important way that Jesus still works to feed, tend and provide for the world – he does this through his flawed and forgiven disciples. The story of Jesus continues through them, through us.

Throughout the centuries, Jesus has worked through Peter, Paul, Ananias, John, you and me to feed and tend others, to share hope with a despairing world. I see this life and abundance busting out all over the place around here. We hosted the Path to Citizenship legal clinic here on Friday and we’re part of the Neighbors Helping Neighbors event today to be in solidarity with immigrant neighbors. Our Women of the ELCA organization hosted three joyous, nourishing events in the past three weeks. Our kids just raised $3000 to build wells in rural Africa.

Property and Management and Facilities Improvement Committees are working hard to make sure our building can help us live out our mission and we get to join that today on St. Grubby’s Day. We’ve had amazing music all spring, even with Brooke away, as the band, choir, jazz musicians, organists and pianists have given such rich offerings. The Worship and Music Committee gave us wonderful Holy Week and Easter services. Tuesday we’re providing a late evening meal for Muslim students during Ramadan, and Saturday we will live out the welcome that Jesus has called us to show to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people as we take part in the Decorah Pride Parade. I could go on and on, but you get the point – abundance busting out all over the place.

The story of Jesus is continuing. It does not end; there is always more. In a movie theater when you know there is more to come, you sit there, waiting. That’s not how it works with the story of Jesus. There is always more but we aren’t supposed to stay sitting, waiting for it. We are supposed to get up and join it. We have and we will – together. Here we are fed and nourished. Here we are sent to continue the story.

Thanks be to God.

Sermon for Sunday, April 28, 2019 – “Look at the Wounds”

Second Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2019
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 from the One who is, who was and who is to come. Amen.

Maybe Thomas needed proof and that’s why he wanted to see Jesus’ wounded hands and feet.

Or, maybe he needed to see the wounds because he wanted to acknowledge what they’d all been through – that they’d just seen Jesus tortured and killed. Before jumping right to “he is risen, praise the Lord,” maybe Thomas needed everyone to be a little more honest and real about the whole thing. Maybe Thomas wanted an authentic encounter with Jesus who had really suffered and died.

I don’t know what Thomas was seeking, but I do think he was on to something in wanting to see Jesus’ wounds. Those wounds are an important part of the story for us today as well.

So often Christianity is portrayed as a muscular faith with powerful claims about resurrection, life and belief. It is such good news that God raised Jesus from the dead – love and life are stronger than hatred, death, evil, fear. Yet, it’s also amazingly good news that we have a wounded savior who knows what it is to suffer and die. Both the resurrection and the wounds are important. We need to hold these two parts of the story together in order for the message of Jesus to be good news for us and for our world.

If we just emphasize “he is risen!”, then it’s easy for Christianity to feel disconnected from the realities of life. Yes, Christ is risen but still hatred and evil seem really strong, still our loved ones die and too soon, still we live in aching bodies, still we struggle and fear.

Jesus’ wounds show us that we aren’t alone in any of this. Jesus has entered into it with us, with you. He knows, from deep within, what this vale of tears is like.

Jesus doesn’t just come and say: Hey, everything’s going to be fine, all’s well that ends well, and this has a ‘happily ever after ending’ because I have triumphed over death.

No, Jesus comes and gets right in there with us in the mess and ache and pain of this life. He does- n’t defend himself against it but is present to everything and to us in an open-hearted way. We have a savior who is wounded and vulnerable.

This is good news for us.

This also needs to shape how we live as Christians in the world. Christ rose triumphant over death, yes, but we must avoid triumphalism – being smug and superior and arrogant about our own beliefs. Christians of all stripes do this. If we act this way, our lives don’t show the good news of

Jesus, and we can’t share the peace that Jesus has given us for the sake of the world.

In a world in which so much public discourse is strident and self-righteous, in a world marred by religious violence and fear of the other, we need to live differently. We need to be vulnerable, as Jesus was.

Thomas got to see the wounded Jesus in the flesh, and it helped him to see Jesus’ death and resurrection as good news for him. Now that people can’t see the crucified and risen Jesus right in front of them, they need to see his followers living with open-hearted vulnerability as he did. This is what we are called to do as Jesus’ followers – as those who are sent to bear witness to the authentic hope of this story, sent to share the peace Christ has given to us.

We can practice vulnerability by listening deeply to others and sharing more of ourselves. It’s harder to hate people when you know their story and know more about why they hold the positions they do.

Do they carry wounds related to the issue? Do you? Can you share that?

We need to listen deeply enough to find what we appreciate in another’s views. We need to share what gives us pause in our own position rather than stridently defending it.

Another way we can practice vulnerability together is through jazz music. These jazz services this spring are teaching us to listen – to the musicians and to each other. They ask us to risk a bit and try new things. The variations and improvisations open us up and maybe even push us out of our comfort zones a bit, helping us to be more open-hearted and vulnerable.

I love how the music this week and last is providing a powerful way to experience the fullness of the good news. Last week we had the Good Shepherd Band offering glorious, joyful, rousing songs of life out of death. This week we get jazz music that is more vulnerable, that holds the tension, wounds and dissonance of African American life while also opening us to surprise and delight. All of this music helps us to enter into the story of Easter.

Beloved, our world needs people who can be open-hearted and vulnerable. This is hard, risky work – it can be frightening.

Yet, we can do this because we are not alone. Jesus has entered into all the mess, ache, and pain of our lives and has risen again, showing that life and love will prevail.

He remains open-hearted and present to us even now.
He gives us his body and blood, broken and shed for us, for you.
Because he is with us, we can listen, share, risk, give and love.

Our lives can show the good news of Jesus, our vulnerable and risen savior.
Our lives can share the peace of Christ.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019 – “Remember There Is More”

Easter Sunday
April 21, 2019
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 the risen Christ.

The worst has happened, their hope is dead and buried, but there is work to be done. So the women set out for the tomb in the early dawn. When they get there the stone is moved, the tomb is empty. They are confused and afraid. Then angels say to them, don’t you remember? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that all of this was going to happen?

Don’t you remember? Are you kidding? Remember what he told us? We’ve just been through hell.

We watched as our teacher was tortured and killed. All our hopes for him, crushed. So, we’re not exactly studying up on his teachings just now. Our minds keep reliving the horrible events from the last few days. That’s about all we can handle right now, thank you very much. Don’t you remember? Please.

The women have come to a place for memories, to the tomb. They’ve come to remember Jesus and to care for him. But at this point, all they can really remember is the trauma of the last few days. Any hopeful talk seems to them an idle tale, as it does for the apostles later.

That’s how it is with us humans. Our brains are wired to pay attention to painful, fearful, negative experiences. Those are stored in our brain much more easily than positive ones. Apparently, our brains evolved this way to protect us. It was crucial for our early ancestors to remember the sound of a prowling tiger, less important to savor the bird song returning each spring. Yet, how this plays out now can be problematic as our painful memories have such power.

This week I read an AP story about the survivors of the Columbine attacks who are now parents themselves. Mornings have been brutal for a woman named Kacey, a survivor and mom of four.

Dropping her kids off at school brings up all her trauma, all her pain, all her fear. You know stories like this – the aunt who can’t drive past the scene of the accident, the vet that can’t stand fireworks and won’t talk about why. It’s understandable that people get stuck in these moments.

How that plays out for us in more mundane circumstances can also be problematic. Even if twenty people compliment us on something we do, we tend to remember the one person who critiqued it.

If we have a lovely day but one thing goes wrong, that will likely be what stands out in our memories of the day. We don’t lay awake at night obsessing about all the smart things we did in, like, 3rd grade; but we do lay awake obsessing about the one dumb thing we did.

We get stuck in the negative. Brain researchers call it negativity bias. Fear and pain get stored in our minds and bodies. We get buried under the weight of all that is fearful, worrisome and sad. So, no, of course, the women don’t remember what Jesus said and did and all he taught them. All they can remember is the hard stuff. They are buried in their own tombs of grief and fear and anxiety.

But then, something changes for them. As they stand there in the light of a new day, in that open, empty tomb, near the stone that has been rolled away, as they hear astonishing good news from the angels – he is risen – things start to shake loose for them. They lift up their heads to look a- round, they begin to breathe a little more easily. Something greater than their trauma gets insert- ed into their mental loop and they DO start to remember more about Jesus …

“You know, he did talk about dying and rising again.” “And, he said what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” “Remember how he healed and forgave people, how he showed such compassion and welcome? It was like he brought life with him wherever he went.” “He crossed boundaries, too – eating with sinners and tax collectors, inviting us women into his ministry. All the normal barriers didn’t seem to stop him.” “Maybe he really did rise from the dead.”

They start to remember more about Jesus. As they do, they realize they know something deeper and stronger than the trauma they’ve experienced. They have known such love and hope and life in Jesus’ presence.

Slowly they begin to imagine other possibilities – perhaps that love cannot be stopped, maybe that life that is stronger than death and hope will arise again. Light seeps into their closed hearts and minds. The stones of fear and anxiety start to roll away. Pain and fear lose their grip and they run from the tomb to share the news that Jesus is risen. They experience resurrection, as do the apostles, eventually.

This is what the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection does for us, for our brains and our bodies. It changes things.

It breaks through all that entombs us in fear and despair. It interrupts our hardwired anxious and negative thinking to remind us of what is deeper and truer – God’s love is stronger than death. Life and hope cannot and will not be ended by evil and hate.  

Slowly the stones are rolled away, the light seeps in, new possibilities emerge, hope arises. We can hear birdsong again.

This has happened for Kacey, the Columbine survivor and mom. Faith has begun to change the panic and fear she experiences each morning, reminding her that love is deeper and stronger than the trauma. She now approaches mornings as an opportunity to shower her children with love. She feeds them a good meal and prays aloud for them on the drive to school. She sees it as her mission to send them out into the world knowing that they are absolutely ADORED and LOVED no matter what. It’s still hard, but it helps.

This is what the good news of Jesus does – it changes us.

This is what happens for us on Easter and each Sunday as we gather to celebrate the resurrection.

We stand in the light of a new day and hear astonishing good news. We lift up our heads, we breathe together, and we begin to remember something deeper and stronger than all the trauma and anxiety. Together we remind each other of love and life and hope. The risen Christ feeds us with a good meal of bread and wine, signs of his risen presence among us. We are opened to new life. We are able to hear the birds sing again.

Those angels stand in an empty tomb and they tell us to remember – He is risen.  

In Jesus you are LOVED and ADORED no matter what.

He is risen and we will arise.  

Lift up your heads, sing out with joy.

Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.

 Thanks be to God.

Sermon for Palm-Passion Sunday, April 14, 2019 – “Words That Calm”

Palm Sunday – Sunday of the Passion
April 14, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

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

We’ve just heard lots of very loud, angry, fearful voices. In that way, our Gospel reading sounds a lot like the times in which we live. Last Sunday in our Adult Forum on the Better Angels Project, we saw video clips of scenes that are so familiar these days – people filled with rage and vitriol screaming insults, fear and passion, and anger spilling out everywhere.

The voices and images that fill our media these days help me to imagine Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.

The leaders of the people heap accusations on Jesus – “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king; he stirs up the people by his teaching [everywhere].”

They are insistent. Jesus must be stopped. When their insistence doesn’t work, they begin to “vehemently accuse him.”

Pilate then sends Jesus to Herod who mocks him, along with his soldiers. They pour contempt on him. When Jesus is returned to Pilate, the leaders and the people all shout out together, “Away with this fellow! Release a murderer instead.”

They keep shouting, “Crucify him, crucify him.” “They [keep] urgently demanding with loud shouts that Jesus should be crucified and their voices [prevail.]”

We also hear from women beating their breasts and wailing for Jesus, from leaders scoffing at him, soldiers mocking him, and a condemned criminal deriding him.

It is a loud, angry, fearful scene – not unlike our own time. Yet, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus remains calm. Jesus does not give in to fear or anger. Instead, he responds with forgiveness, with a promise, and with trust in his Father, saying: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”; promises a criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise”; and finally, “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.”

The last words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Luke show the depth of his calm faithfulness. They convey how grounded he is in his true identity.

His words can help us to remain calm and faithful in this time. They provide grounding and assurance for us today.

And God knows, we need all of this today. For whether or not we are out chanting insults at others, we are all in some way complicit in this fearful, angry, broken world.

We all shape and are shaped by our surroundings.  We give in to the power of fear.  We react too quickly out of our implicit or explicit bias.  We rile up ourselves and others with anger and judgment.  We stay silent when we should speak words of peace.  We need Jesus’ words of forgiveness. We need to know we are not defined by our worst moments and bound by base instincts; that we need not be governed by fear and judgment. Instead, we are forgiven and set free. This release allows us to be gracious and kind and hopeful. So today, and each day, Jesus says to you, “You are forgiven, you are set free to love and to serve.”

We also need the assurance that Jesus is with us now and that we will always be with him. We need the promise he gave to the criminal being crucified next to him – I am with you, you will be with me. So today, Jesus says to you, “I am with you. You are not alone in all of this brokenness and pain. This is not all there is. You have a future with hope.”

Finally, we need to know that we, too, can entrust ourselves to God. In the Gospel of Luke we see that Jesus knew he was safe in his Father’s hands. No matter what the world threw at him, no matter what happened, his life was held in God. This assurance allowed him to forgive, love, promise and remain calm, even when he was being tortured and killed.

Beloved, no matter what happens to you, to our world, your life is held in God. You belong to God. You can entrust your life into God’s hands, now and always.

Jesus says, I forgive you, I am with you, you can trust God.

May these words of Jesus ground you, guide you and uphold you – now and always.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.