Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2019 – “Worship As Cataract Surgery”

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 13, 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.

This week I read a vivid description of what happens when we worship: In worship we experience something like cataract surgery.[1]As many of you know from personal experience, a cataract makes your vision cloudy as if you are looking through a frosty or fogged-up window. Cataract surgery involves removing the cloudy lens of the eye and replacing it with a new lens. After people have this surgery, their eye seems to sparkle like a window that has just been cleaned. There is a twinkle in their eye. Take a close look at someone who’s had this procedure recently- it’s fun to see.

Worship is a bit like cataract surgery. It cleans the fog from our vision and changes how we see the world. It helps our eyes to shine with clear-eyed hopefulness. That’s good news because how we see things really matters. The way we perceive God, other people and ourselves really impacts our lives. That’s clear in our Gospel reading today.

Ten men with leprosy approach Jesus but keep their distance because they knew they’re seen as unclean, impure, disgusting. They know people look at them with judgement and condemnation.

They’ve been taught to hide away out of sight, to keep their distance. Yet Jesus sees these people and wants them to be both healed and restored to community. So, he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. He wants the priests to look closely at them and declare that they are well.

These ten lepers do as Jesus tells them. Yet as they go, we’re told that one man sees that he is healed. He notices, recognizes, perceives the amazing thing that God has done for him. Because he can see it, he can’t help but turn back to praise and give thanks – a very faithful response.

Ten people have been healed, but apparently only one really perceives clearly what has happened. What he sees makes all the difference in the trajectory of his life and provides him with powerful healing experiences as he praises God, expresses gratitude and gets to hear Jesus’ words of blessing spoken over him.

Those things all contribute to well-being and wholeness (and by the way, we get to share in them today.) He experiences these things after perceiving what God has done for him. How we see matters.

Jesus then asks his disciples and all of us to take a look at this faithful man – to really see him and learn from him. He is a Samaritan, which means he is not only considered a foreigner to the Jews, but also an enemy. The Jewish people have been conditioned to look down on people like him, to view them with suspicion – the way prominent politicians are encouraging us to perceive immi- grants and Muslims. How we see matters.

Jesus wants us to see others differently – to see as he sees. So, throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus calls his disciples’ attention to the people they view as enemies and says, look here is a good Samaritan. Here is a faithful Samaritan. This is who you should picture when you think about goodness and faithfulness. As he does this, Jesus asks all of us to look more closely at those we fear and distrust to see their abundant goodness and faithfulness.

From a variety of different angles, this story shows us that the way we see matters. It impacts everything.

Yet, so often our vision is clouded by our fears, insecurities and judgements. We view people as problems to be kept at a distance or as enemies to be feared. We look at ourselves with shame and even disgust, seeking to hide from others and from God. We perceive God as an angry judge and are unable to recognize and give thanks for the healing that God brings into our lives. We get stuck in negative perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. When we see the world in these ways, we don’t experience well-being and wholeness.

Jesus wants us to see differently. Jesus wants to cleanse away all that clouds our vision and give us a new way to see. That is what happens each week in worship – it’s why worship is a bit like cataract surgery. Through word and song, bread and wine our perceptions of the world are challenged and reoriented. Our vision is cleansed and renewed. We are given a new lens with which to view God, others and ourselves – a lens of compassion and love.

Yet before we’re willing to enter this process, we need to know we have a trustworthy surgeon. We need to know that we can trust God to guide our perceptions and our view of the world. This is the most important thing that happens in worship – we learn that God can be trusted.

We learn this because in worship we are drawn into God’s loving gaze. We come into God’s presence and we experience God’s face shining on us with love and delight. We see that God is loving, compassionate and forgiving. This allows us to be clear-eyed and hopeful, even in this troubled world. It allows us to experience well-being and wholeness, even when we face illness, pain and hardship.

The healing service we share in today lets us bask in God’s compassionate gaze. In this gaze, you are seen, blessed, healed and sent out to delight in God’s world.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

[1] Rev. Dr. David Lose offers this image for worship in the Dear Working Preacher blog dated October 3, 2010, entitled “Cataract Surgery”

Sermon for Sunday, October 6, 2019 – “You Are Enough”

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 6, 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.

Last Sunday we heard from a great hero of the Christian faith, Bishop Munib Younan. He has work- ed tirelessly for a just peace in the Holy Land and for interfaith understanding throughout the world. At times he’s risked his own life. Bishop Younan had just received the Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) Award, an honor that he shares with others like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Yet at a luncheon last week, when that award was mentioned, Bishop Younan laughed it off and said something like, “I’m Lutheran we’re saved by grace. I don’t need an award.”

As I talked with the bishop at different gatherings last week, I was struck that he hasn’t set out to be a great and powerful man. He is simply a pastor who loves God and his people, who is doing what needs to be done to serve them. He isn’t seeking to have influence and power; he’s just doing his job.

Yet before I met Bishop Younan, I was a bit intimidated when I thought about spending time with such a heroic man. How have I contributed to peace and justice in the world? I probably felt a little like the disciples in our Gospel reading today when they plead with Jesus to increase their faith.

They feel inadequate in the face of what Jesus is asking of them – they want more faith, more power, more assurance that they can do this.

The problem is by quantifying faith, by begging for extra help to do what Jesus tells them to do, by fantasizing about some superpower that they don’t possess, they miss the point. Faith is not a sub- stance you can measure – it is someone you trust. And Jesus has told his disciples over and over: I’m right here, I’ve called you, I’m with you, you can trust me, you can trust God.

So, Jesus gets impatient with them and basically tells them: stop focusing on yourself and what you think you lack. Don’t expect more of some thing in order to do what I’m calling you to do. Get over yourself, look to God, you have all that you need.

You can trust God to do more in you than you can do on your own.

There’s also something lost in translation with Jesus’ words here. What he says is really more like: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, and you know you do, you can work wonders. But then he continues: Don’t try to be amazing and work wonders and get all sorts of accolades – just do what needs to be done and be content with that.

OK, that’s not exactly what Jesus says. According to Luke, he says, “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say … We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

I wish Jesus had used a different metaphor and been a little more kind, but he does give us some pretty freeing advice here. Don’t try to be more than you are, don’t do things expecting praise, don’t try to be amazing, just do your job and God will work in you as you do.

Our reading from 1 Timothy tells us that God has saved us and called us with a holy calling. God has given us each important callings. Our callings are to be workers, parents, spouses, friends, helpers, teachers and servants. As we live out our callings, God is working through us to love and heal the world.

This is important to remember in this time when there are so many challenges in our world. It can all be overwhelming and intimidating. We can start to feel like we need to be heroic to make any difference. Sometimes we feel if we can’t be like Bishop Younan or Greta Thunberg or Desmund Tutu, we shouldn’t even try.

But Jesus says just be who you are. Just do what is yours to do. Just get to work. This is all Bishop Younan does – he just seeks to do his job well. It is all any heroic person ever says. Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, originally from Clinton, Iowa, is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor from either the Iraq or Afghan wars. There’s a terrible story that led up to it, as is usually the case, but in reflecting on his actions SSG Giunta had this to say, “I didn’t run through fire to do any- thing heroic or brave; I did what I believe anyone would have done.” Heroes of most any kind usually echo that sentiment. “I was just doing my job.” “Anybody would have done it.” “I just did what I’m supposed to do.” That’s Jesus’ point: Just do what you’re supposed to do – you don’t need more faith, you just have to be who you are as God’s child and use the faith God has given you.

Just do your job. Care for your spouse, be kind to your kids, help your neighbor, listen to a co-worker who is down, bring soup for the October Fiesta, call your representative. In daily life, in the ordinary things, practice love and kindness and service. In these and so many other ways, you are doing what God has called you to do and you are bringing hope and love into our world.

You are a beloved child of God. You are enough.

You don’t have to do anything heroic, or grand, or flashy. Just do your job.

God will work through you.

Sermon for Sunday, September 22, 2019 – “Unjust Wealth”

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 22, 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.

This is a strange story. Hearing it set in our time might help. This modern retelling was offered by ELCA Pastor Elizabeth Rawlings[1] (with some editing by me for ease of speaking).

Imagine this:

Sam works for an investment company, managing a portfolio of repackaged debt. They sell packages of medical debt, mortgages, credit card debt, etc. for pennies on the dollar to investors who then either continue to collect debt payments with obscene amounts of interest or attempt to collect on the debt. Now, imagine Sam’s boss hears through the grapevine that his performance is less than spectacular. Sam is asked to come to a meeting and give an account for everything bought, sold, and earned. Facing the prospect of termination, Sam comes up with a plan to make some friends in case of unemployment; he goes into the system and reduces the amount owed by hundreds of people. Sam emails those people to let them know that their debts – under which many were drowning – have now been cut by at least half. The recipients of Sam’s debt forgiveness are now more able to pay off their debts, and more able to do other things – like pay rent and buy food.

Sam gets fired, but not before the story goes viral – grateful people have posted all over social media about the generous stranger who erased their debt. Someone starts a GoFundMe for Sam. Sam’s boss, though angry, is also quietly impressed at the moves Sam made. He texts Sam a mes- sage: ‘Well played. You’re fired’. A master of working people over for money, ,the boss recognizes and appreciates the way Sam used the system to work over the business and gain from it. The company realizes they can take credit for the debt relief and lure more borrowers to the company.

Sam’s shrewdness ends up getting him a promotion instead of a firing. This retelling helps me get a sense of what’s going on in this parable. I’ve never understood why Jesus tells a story in which a dishonest manager is commended and why he tells us to make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth.

Yet the manager’s actions do benefit those who had crushing debts – a very common problem in the ancient world. Rich landowners, like this manager’s boss, were like loan sharks charging exorbitant interest rates that caused real harm to ordinary people.

Jesus is not a fan of this kind of stuff, to put it mildly. Jesus has the very heart of God and throughout scripture we see that God is deeply concerned with the poor. We see in our Amos reading today, throughout the Psalms and the Prophets, that God has special concern for the poor. And Jesus’ whole ministry, especially as interpreted by the Gospel of Luke, is focused on bringing down the rich and mighty and raising up the poor and lowly so that all can experience God’s abundance, both in this life and eternally.

I think Jesus is commending the manager here for helping others to have enough, even though the manager’s motives seem a bit sketchy, even though it seems he’s just doing it to get ahead, himself.

In the end, his actions do serve to relieve the pain of the poor and that’s really important to Jesus. Perhaps Jesus is saying he wants us to take action to help others even if our motives aren’t completely pure. He knows our actions will never be totally altruistic and people need help, anyway.

The modern retelling also helps me make sense of that strange phrase that is often translated, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” The original Greek that usually gets translated “dishonest” actually means unjust, unrighteous or wicked. That changes the meaning of Jesus’ words quite a bit. Because when you think about it, in this broken world, all our wealth is in some way unjust – even if we’ve worked hard and earned our money in honest ways, even if we don’t work for unjust companies that make their money charging predatory interest rates. As Pastor Rawlings points out, “All of our money filters through the global economy … and somewhere along the way our money has been run through the hands of some person or business that is unjust.”

We could get paralyzed thinking about injustice and macroeconomics and all the implications of the way money is used. Or, we can focus on using our money to help others.

Jesus teaches here that we can’t serve both wealth and God. And he works to set us free from enslavement to wealth and debt so that we might know the joy of serving God and being in relation- ship with others.

This story seems to be showing us how we can experience that freedom and help others to experience it. We can use the wealth and the influence we have to free others from crushing debt. We can advocate for debt relief policies for poor nations and individuals and for caps on predatory payday lending. We can advocate for policies that help to make sure wealth is more evenly shared.

When we do this, we are living in the ways of Jesus, in ways that help us and other people to be at home in God’s abundance, now and always. Our church body, the ELCA, gives us help in such work. We have a shared ministry called ELCA Advocacy. Here is a description of that ministry:

“As members of the ELCA, we believe that we are freed in Christ to serve and love our neighbor. God uses our hands, through our direct service work, and our voices, through our advocacy efforts, to restore and reconcile our world. Through faithful advocacy, the ELCA lives out our Lutheran belief that governments can help advance the common good.

ELCA advocacy works for change in public policy based on the experience of Lutheran ministries, programs and projects around the world and in communities across the United States. We work through political channels on behalf of the following biblical values: peacemaking, hospitality to strangers, care for creation, and concern for people living in poverty and struggling with hunger and disease.”

ELCA Advocacy regularly sends out alerts and opportunities to use our voices and influence. There is an advocacy alert right now related to a proposed change to SNAP (food stamp program) that would impact 3.1 million children, family and disabled adults. Look for the Social Justice Subcommittee on laptops during Fellowship Hour today to participate in that. You can also sign up at to get additional information and have the alerts sent to your email.

Christ Jesus is always at work to set us free from enslavement to money and debt and to empower us to help set others free. Christ is always at work so that we and all people may know God’s abundance.

Let’s join in that work today and each day.

And let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

[1] Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings at

Sermon for Sunday, September 15, 2019 – “Whatever It Takes”

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 15, 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.

These stories give us such beautiful images for God: God is like a shepherd who won’t stop searching for one lost sheep, like a woman down on her hands and knees scouring her house for a lost coin. God will not stop seeking us out when we’re lost and oh, how God rejoices when we’re found.

This is great, good news for us and those we love because we all get lost. We’re all lost sheep sometimes – cut off from community, wandering on paths that beat us down, in danger. Other times we are like lost coins trapped in deep pits and dark corners. What good news to know our Good Shepherd beats the bushes for us and enters every nook and cranny to find us.

These are beautiful images, but they’re even more powerful when we zoom in a little closer. If we just glance at these stories, they can give us a fairly simplistic picture of how God searches and finds us.

Looking closely can show us even more good news.

For instance – If we just take these stories at face value, we might imagine that the whole searching and finding thing happens really quickly. In each of these stories it takes just one sentence for the object to be both lost and found. That fast-paced losing and finding could give the impression that we’ll only ever feel lost for a short time before God will swoop in to save us. And, when God doesn’t quickly act to get things back on track, we can get discouraged.

But, finding a lost sheep in the rocky hillsides of ancient Israel would have been a long and dangerous process. A shepherd would have to scale perilous heights and enter treacherous valleys.

Searching for a small lost coin amidst a whole household, with only lamplight, would have been a pains- taking, time-consuming process – so many dark corners to scour, so much dust to clear away. Searching and finding is a long, involved process.

At times it will feel like we or those we love are lost for a really, really long time. Yet all is not lost.

God has committed to searching for us no matter how long it takes. In Jesus we see that God will go to any length to find us and love us. God will go into the darkest places of our world and our lives to draw us into God’s loving arms. God will trudge up perilous heights – even up on a cross – and enter the most treacherous valleys – even descending to the dead. God’s search for us continues even into death.

God will roll up sleeves and get down on hands and knees. God doesn’t just stay above the fray and swoop to save us quickly. There are times we might prefer to have a God who does that, a God who waves a magic wand and fixes everything. But, God has committed to be among us not as a superhero or a magician but rather as a shepherd caring for sheep, as a woman searching for a lost coin.

This is good news because getting lost and being found is also more complicated than these stories present. These stories could give the impression that we’re either completely lost or totally safe within the fold – gone astray or clearly on the straight and narrow path. The truth is we all get lost and found over and over again. We get tangled up in our pride, we trip up on anger, we get stuck in a pit of self-pity, often many times each day. We don’t need a superhero to swoop in and rescue us once in a while. We need to be sought out as often as floors need to be swept; we need a shepherd who is on the path with us every day.

It is only with the help of the shepherd that we can repent. The word repent means to turn and go in an- other direction. And, we need the constant help of a shepherd to lead us from paths that will leave us lost, to get us turned around and following the way of life, well-being, and true joy.

Too often these stories have been used to say, “We have to repent in order to be saved” – as if repentance is something that we can do on our own, as if God’s saving is dependent on what we do. Yet, thinking we can do it on our own gets us lost. Thinking it all depends on us gets us lost. Besides, sheep and coins can’t do anything to repent. They need to be found by a searching shepherd, a devoted woman. We who are the sheep of God’s pasture need God to search us out each new day, to turn us back to the path of life – time and time again.

This is what God does for us. In Christ Jesus, God has entered our world and is present with us on the paths we travel each day. God is there to find us, to turn us, to lead us. Each week, we are led back here to receive God’s word and the meal of God’s forgiveness – we are nourished and healed for the journey.

There are hard roads ahead in this world that is plagued with religious violence, racial tensions, a refugee crisis, climate change. Sometimes we’re tempted to get off the road and go hide. But that, too, would leave us lost.

Instead …

Let’s follow our shepherd who leads us on paths of love, forgiveness and service to others.

Let’s follow the woman holding out a lamp, shedding light, searching for a treasured object.

Let’s go shed light and convey the good news that all are treasured and beloved.

And, let’s take a moment for silent prayer.


Sermon for Sunday, September 8, 2019 – “Love Reminders”

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rally Sunday
September 8, 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.

Jesus tells us to love God and others with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. He says this is what God most wants from us and for us. As Jesus describes it, love isn’t just a feeling. It’s a choice and an action. Love involves conscious, active intentional work. Yet, it can be hard to remember to choose love and to live it out.

God knows this. God knows we need real, tangible help with this work. So, God told the people of Israel to put concrete reminders to love on their hands and foreheads, doorposts and gates.

These days we have all sorts of tools to remind us to do things. Some people write notes on their hands; others put post-it notes up everywhere or set alerts on their phones. Kids – many of you probably have checklists at home to remind you of your chores. Wouldn’t it be great if we used those tools to encourage us to love? What if each morning, as everyone’s rushing to get out the door, a daily alert came through that just said LOVE? Would that change the morning? I wonder and I might try that this week.

Yet. even without a post-it note, checklist or phone alert, there are so many concrete things in our lives that can serve as encouragement to practice love.

I see a lot of them around this building. The Reconciling in Christ logo on our doors, for instance – the visible sign that this congregation has intentionally chosen to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and queer people – encourages me to live out that commitment by my actions.

Our new fully accessible bathroom calls to mind this congregation’s long commitment to those with special needs and reminds me that showing love involves concrete action.

As I walk around, I see baskets to collect items for the Food Pantry and supplies for school kits that will be given to children around the world, as well as thank you notes from all the ministries we support through our financial gifts. All serve as good encouragement to live out our faith and love in concrete ways.

When I see Al-Anon, Friends of Recovery, and Narcotics Anonymous groups meeting here, I’m re- minded to love and pray for those who struggle with addiction. And, I’m grateful because lessons from 12-step programs can help us all to love more fully.

When I see the building being used to accompany our immigrant neighbors, I’m reminded that Jesus says if we welcome strangers we welcome him. We love God by loving all of God’s children.

The Kinderhaus preschool that rents our space teaches me what love sounds like. It sounds like singing, laughter, kind words, and teachers who so gently redirect and comfort. Every time I hear those teachers working with a kid, I get a lesson in patience.

And then when you all come on Sundays, I see so many reminders to actively practice love. I see Karl Jacobsen and his therapy dog, Scotty, and I’m reminded to pray and advocate for people with diabetes – especially because insulin and supplies are so terribly expensive right now. I see people who’ve lost loved ones and need us to stay with them for the long haul of grief. I see all your faces and think about the joy and pain you all carry – some of which I am privileged to carry with you.

I’m reminded how much we all need loving, caring community and how much we need help and encouragement to practice love for real people in real time. It’s hard work to keep loving people year after year in community. All the minor annoyances, all the larger disagreements can take a toll. Yet we keep showing up, week after week, to practice love

In so many ways here, we are reminded to live out love of God and love of neighbor.

And here we are given very concrete reminders that we are so very loved by God. We are given bread and wine, Jesus’ body and blood – given so that we will always know God’s love for us deep in our bones. We are given symbols and rituals, words and songs that we can repeat again and again to assure us that God has a hold of us; and God will not let us go.

Then we are sent out to ‘do’ love in the world. It is harder out there because we live in a world that has constant pressure to consume, to compete, and far fewer things that encourage us to love. Yet, still God is at work in our daily lives to get our attention and help us practice love.

God gets my attention through my coffee pot. I’m a morning person and don’t need coffee right when I get up in the morning. Yet, my beloved spouse does appreciate it pretty quickly. He shows love in lots of small acts of kindness and I want to do the same. So, I make it a priority to get the coffee made even if I’m going to wait a while to drink it. The coffee pot reminds me to do small, kind things throughout the day.

God also gets my attention through text messages from friends who send love and support. Those remind me to give those same kinds of messages to my kids.

What helps you to love? What else might serve to encourage you?

Jesus commands us to love God and others with our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Here we are given what we need to do that.
Here we are sent out to join God in the work of loving the world.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.