Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2020 – “Fire, Body, Breath”

The Day of 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.

The Day of Pentecost is normally a joyous celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit shows up in all sorts of ways in our scripture readings today, most dramatically in the rush of a violent wind and tongues of fire. The beautiful stole and paraments at Good Shepherd and these red flowers evoke that fire of the Holy Spirit. Today we’re also told that Spirit animates the body of Christ, that God sends forth the Spirit to give breath to all creation, and that Jesus breathes out the Holy Spirit upon us.

The Pentecost scriptures are full of such powerful images and sounds of fire, body, and breath. Yet, this Pentecost they feel quite jarring amidst the images and sounds of fire, bodies and breath from Minneapolis and St. Paul: a police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck for so many long minutes as George pleads “please, please, please I can’t breathe”; cities on fire; bodies crying out for justice; the sounds of tear gas and violence in the streets. And all of this under the shadow of COVID-19 when so many are gasping for breath.

This Pentecost I don’t feel joyful. I feel afraid: afraid for people of color who, on a daily basis, know so much more fear for their lives and their children than I will ever experience; afraid for law enforcement officers – those I know and love and so many more – who serve others in this country that is so shaped by racism and violence; afraid for my hometowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul and for my family and friends, for you and your loved ones who live there. That fear, these images and sounds have brought me to tears often this week.

In the midst of this, I’m grateful that this week I have also been reminded of an invitation to pray with the news, offered by Good Shepherd member Jane Jakoubek. This past Wednesday I shared that practice during Holden Evening Prayer. Each week I’m offering an invitation to a prayer practice that you can use at home and this time it was Jane’s practice of praying with the news. This practice was so helpful to me this week as the news got more and more painful. I’ll give a quick summary here and you can find more under the Worship Tab of the website on the Prayer Practices and Reflections page.

  • Jane encourages us to pray before, during and after we engage with the news.
  • Before we begin, we can ask God to help us see each news item through the lens of faith, hope, and love, to suspend judgement and stay open.
  • During the news, we can cry out “Lord have mercy” and give thanks for signs of God’s presence.
  • After the news, we can pray with the feelings the news has evoked after we engage it.
  • Jane also asks us to commit to praying for one of the stories from the news throughout the days to come and to ask what God is calling us to do in response to it.

These practices have helped me to remain present to the story of George Floyd’s death and the protests following it. As I’ve prayed with this story, I’ve sensed God calling me to pay attention to the pain of people of color, to my siblings in our human family who have been so oppressed by centuries of racism, white privilege and white supremacy. It is hard to stay with pain. I want to look away. I feel overwhelmed and hopeless by it all. It is easier to turn to anger and judgement. I’m tempted to take a stand about the issues on Facebook and then think I’ve done my part. Yet, I sense God is calling me and calling us to stay with the pain. We need to see and hear and pay attention to the pain.

I am concerned that in this time of COVID-19 we are not paying enough attention to the pain in our world. We are turning to outrage and fear instead. Partly, that’s because physical distancing is impacting our patterns for dealing with grief. We can’t gather for funerals and memorials. We can’t physically sit with and embrace those outside our households. Partly, it’s because of a cultural dis- comfort with grief and pain. Americans much prefer being positive and upbeat. Yet, if we don’t tend to our grief it will come out sideways as anger and judgement and stridency. Healing and love are released as we pay attention to the pain. God enters into the pain of our world in Jesus and calls us to do the same. We especially need to pay attention to the pain of those who are black and brown who are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. And we need to listen very close- ly to the pain of these siblings who are not safe in the United States.

One of those voices is that of black preacher, the Rev. Dr. Ron Bell Jr, Lead Pastor of Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Paul. I want you to hear his voice today. Dr. Bell shared this powerful post early Friday morning before the police officer was arrested. He writes,[1]

“My city is burning, but not in the way the media is showing. Did you see the fire, not the one burning down the precinct but the one burning in the hearts of the wounded in my community? The grieving mothers and grandmothers recalling the voice of our dear brother George Floyd as he called for his mother while taking his last breath. The burning of the hearts of we who wept when our governmental leaders refused to arrest the murderer of this wicked and inhumane deed. Did you see that fire?

Did you see the shattered glass, not those easily replaceable windows scattered in pieces on the ground under our feet? Instead, the shattered glass of expectation for justice, the shattered glass of respect for our humanity that our murderers continue to display, the shattered glass of hope as we watched our brother’s body lay lifeless under the knee of his murderer. Did you see that glass shatter?

You must have witnessed the looting? Not the ones the cameras and social media love to exploit, but instead the looting of our human rights. The looting of our constitutional rights as citizens. The looting of our communities for decades by corporations for greed. Did you see that looting?

I think you were so busy looking for a riot that you missed the gathering of the grieving. I think you were so busy looking for looters that you missed the lament and heartbreak of a community. I think you were so busy looking for trouble that you missed the tragedy of systemic racialized trauma on the bodies of black and brown people. Tonight, tomorrow, and even the next day I beg of you, look again. Look again.

I do not have a scripture for you. I do not have a perfectly curated historical epitaph from a giant like King to impress you with. Instead, I have a request for you. Look again. See the trauma and pain of my community. See the anger and anxiety. See the tiredness. Look again.

Once you have really looked upon our sorrow, once you have put away your hashtags, retweets and emojis, once you have set with the weight of our sorrow what you will discover is my city has be- come your city. My pain has become your pain. That young person protesting has become your young person grieving … Do not look away. For then and only then will you be truly with us! Look again.”

Beloved of God, we need to see this pain and hear it. We need to stay with it. We need to pray with it. We need to pay attention to the images and sounds of fire, body and breath that come to us to- day from both Minneapolis and from scripture. We need to ask God what these images and sounds have to say to our lives.

What in our lives, personally and collectively, needs to be burned away? What patterns of anger, judgement, fear and privilege are preventing us from seeing, honoring, and being with black and brown bodies and from celebrating the dignity of these beloved children of God?

How will we honor God’s Spirit that breathes out life for all people and all creation and honor the breath of all people?

How can we see and respond to racial injustice in Decorah, in our own communities, within the ELCA?

How can we who have privilege use it to amplify the voices of our siblings of color and join them in advocating for racial justice?

How will we live as the body of Christ bearing witness to that Spirit of love at work in the world?

We need to pray. We need to see. We need to listen. And we need to keep doing this long after the cameras have left Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Please pray and join me in discerning and acting together as a community. As we do this, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in our world to renew the face of the earth. The fire of the Holy Spirit is at work to get our attention and trouble us and empower us to work for the healing of all creation.

The Holy Spirit that Jesus breathes upon us is at work.

The Holy Spirit is at work for you, for the body of Christ, and for all bodies.

Let us look, listen, pray and join the work of the Spirit.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.


Sermon for Sunday, May 17, 2020 – “Commanded to Love”

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decoah, 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 my cousin Danny was a toddler, he delighted in escaping from his house. His parents tried every strategy possible to keep him safe inside; but every so often, he’d wake up early, manipulate the new childproof lock his parents were trying, and hit the road – sometimes buck naked. His par- ents soon developed a neighborhood phone tree. Whenever Danny was missing in action, droves of people would be mobilized to spring into gear on “Danny Patrol”. Once they found him on his Big Wheel two miles from home. 

A while ago, I heard the story of another little boy who approached the whole running away from home thing in a different manner. “You don’t love me,” he yelled to his mom one day, “I’m running away.” She let him go, watching to see what would happen. She was surprised when he began rid- ing his tricycle furiously around the block, over and over again. Finally, a neighbor stopped and asked him what he was doing – “Running away from home,” he said defiantly. Puzzled, the neighbor asked, “Then why do you keep going around the block? The boy replied, “ ’Cause my mom said I’m not allowed to cross the street.”

Obedience kept that boy close to home, close to where he needed to be. And obedience keeps us where we need to be, at home in God.

As we heard last week, Jesus has promised that we have a home in God. Later Jesus also says, “Abide in me,” make your home in me. Jesus wants us to have the peace that comes from abiding in God’s love, of being at home in God. Yet there are times when we feel like running away from God, times we feel distant, like God doesn’t care, times we don’t feel like being at home with God. It’s a gift, then, that Jesus gives us commandments for obedience to them helps keep us close to home.

Sometimes we’re told that it is obedience that gives us a home in God. If we do what we’re sup- posed to do, then God will reward us with a place of honor. Yet that isn’t what we see throughout the Gospel of John and throughout scripture. Jesus comes to dwell with us and to draw us into relationship with God. God acts first, always, to reach out to us – God’s beloved children – to assure us that we have a place and a home in God. God our parent provides the home. And, it seems that Jesus calls us into obedience so that we may be kept close to home.

The specific type of obedience that Jesus calls us into is the obedience of love. Jesus commands us to love God and love others. We don’t often view love as something that can be commanded. We think of it more as something you feel, an emotion. Yet, we know that human love can’t be sustained by emotions alone.  Sometimes love does bubble up and flow out of us.

But more often, love requires work- the day in, day out work of living out love. When people call to check on you even when they’re exhausted, when your spouse helps with dishes even after a crazy full day, when you clean up because you know it will make the house feel better, when you keep volunteering at the food pantry, making masks, advocating for immigrants even when you feel crabby – that is what love looks like. We practice love and live it out. Love is an action much more than it is a feeling.

That’s how it is with love for God as well. Sometimes we get the message that being a Christian means always feeling ready to praise the Lord – being so full of thankfulness that you can hardly wait to say grace at meals or do acts of service. Sometimes we do feel like that. Yet Love of God is not about emotions. Jesus didn’t say, “If you love me, you will always feel on fire for me.” Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The way to God is not to have strong feelings for God. The way to love Jesus is to obey his command that we practice love of God and love of others.

Mother Teresa wrote of a difficult period she had in her life. For seven years she didn’t feel religious fervor, joy, confidence in her faith, or even a very strong connection to God.  And yet, she knew that she needed God, even though she wasn’t feeling a lot of benefits. And so, she kept showing up. 

She kept showing up for her prayer time every day. She kept showing up to serve. She kept following Jesus’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” She knew she loved Jesus, even though she didn’t feel it, and so she lived out love. Finally, after seven years Mother Teresa was blessed by a true sense of joy, a renewed faith, a feeling of deep love.

Now, I think God knows that most of us can’t go seven years without feeling some of the benefits of faith and so I think God gives us a little more help. But the truth is, we can’t always be ruled by our feelings. If even someone as faithful as Mother Teresa went for seven years without feeling close to God, we just may have a few dry, empty days as well – especially right now. We may have days when we just are tired of the people around us, and don’t like online worship, and have a lot of reasons to be crabby and lazy; but none of that ultimately matters.

What matters is that God has chosen us as beloved children. What matters is that God gives us a home, a home in which we can live in peace through good times, and bad times, and just plain OK times. Obedience helps keep us close to that home. And regular practices of faith help us to live out love as Jesus commands. They provide what teacher L. Gregory Jones calls the “grace of daily obligation.” Our obligations to take out the garbage, pick up our mess, or just listen, are all things that give us chances to live out love to others. In the same way, the grace filled daily obligations – prayer, study, service with others, worship, and giving – are what help us to live out love. These things pro- vide a way to actively do love of God and love of others.

In the time of COVID-19, we also have a number of other daily obligations that allow us to live out love – wearing masks, staying home to save lives, staying physically distant. Sometimes the demands of all these practices will feel constricting, just as some of the demands of home and family often feel constricting. There will be times when we want to just get on our tricycles and ride away furiously around the block. At those times, the grace of daily obligations like prayer and worship can keep us close to the peace and the home God gives us.

Of course, there are also times when we just cross that street and run away – times when we’re like my cousin Danny on his Big Wheel – and end up miles and miles from home. Yet then and always, God goes out searching for us. God has a “Danny Patrol” and an “Amy Patrol” and a patrol just for you.

In fact, in our Gospel reading today Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as the one who is sent to draw us home into God. When Jesus says here that the Spirit is our Advocate, he uses the Greek word paraclete which literally means “one called to come alongside.” The Spirit comes alongside us to draw us into relationship with God. As we move through this life, close to home or far from home, the Spirit searches for us and comes alongside us to bring us home.

So, in one way, the Spirit is a little like our “Danny Patrol.” Of course, the Spirit is also so much more. Jesus says the Spirit also abides in us and is in us. The Spirit helps us to live out love and keep Jesus’ commandments. The Spirit works through and transcends all the practices of faith in order to get through to us and draw us deeper into God.

Beloved child of God, you have a home in God.
The Spirit is with you and in you and alongside you.
You can live out love for God and others.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2020 – “The Way for Our Journey”

Fifth 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.

We so often hear the first part of this passage at funerals, for good reason. After the death of a loved one, it brings such comfort. It is so good to know that Jesus has prepared a place for us to dwell with God now and always. Yet, since it’s part of so many funerals, we sometimes think this passage only applies to life after death.

But in this passage, Jesus isn’t talking to his disciples about what will happen after they die. He isn’t talking about a place we go to after death and saying some will get in and some won’t – though it’s often been interpreted that way.

This passage is part of Jesus’ final message to his disciples when they are feeling anxious about their life here on earth. Jesus is telling his disciples that he is going to leave them, that he is going to die. They are so very confused and afraid. Everything is changing. Everything feels uncertain.

They can’t imagine the way forward.

Sound familiar? This is such an uncertain and unsettling time. We have so many questions. What will happen with this virus? When will there be a vaccine? When can we gather? What will happen for the economy, for those most in need, for those most impacted by the virus? How will we get through this?

When everything feels anxious and unclear for Jesus’ first disciples, he tells them, “You know the way.” Thomas takes him literally and says, “We don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” Thomas gets fixated on the concrete and clear-cut – something that’s so easy to do in anxious times. Jesus assures Thomas – yes, you do the know the way because I AM the way. I AM the way, the truth and the life. In me, you have all that you need.

Through the power of his word given in scripture, Jesus also assures us who are anxious in this time. He says to us, you know the way in the journey with this pandemic because I AM the way. We don’t yet have concrete, clear-cut answers to our many questions. But we do know the way because we know Jesus. In relationship with Jesus, the way, we are given all that we truly need.

In just this passage alone, we see three key gifts that we receive in relationship with Jesus – gifts that are so crucial for walking with hope and faith in this time.

First, Jesus prepares a place for us in the heart of God- Jesus opens up space for us to have an intimate relationship with God. This isn’t a literal, physical space. Yet, it is something we experience in tangible ways as Jesus helps us to feel at home in God’s presence. At home in God, we can rest and breathe deeply. We can know peace and refuge in God, here and now – even when the storm outside rages.

Because we have this place of peace in God, we can endure whatever comes. Because we have this place in the heart of God, we can commune with God even when we can’t go in the church building.

We can also commune with others as we are all held together in the heart of God. We are held there with those who have died, those we’ve not seen in person for weeks, and the whole communion of saints. We are held together with the ones who have mothered us – the moms next to us on the couch this morning, those in nursing homes, those who are so far away and those who have died. Our place in the heart of God is both a starting place and a respite on this journey. It is a gift given by Jesus who is the way.

Another gift we are given in relationship with Jesus is his guidance on this journey. Jesus shows us what the way of love looks like. Jesus tells the disciples that he is the way on the night before he’s crucified. In his death, we see that the way of love involves sacrifice and suffering. None of us wants to suffer. We’d all prefer to be comfortable and satisfied. And, we aren’t called to suffer just for the sake of suffering. Yet love does call us to give fully of ourselves for others. Love does involve a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others. And, Jesus leads us on the path of costly love.

We see people living out this way of love everywhere these days. We see it in our shepherds who are stretching themselves to reach out. The shepherds know some of the people in their flocks very well, but there are many that they’ve never met. They want to be helpful. They don’t want to intrude. And, it isn’t always easy to discern what people need. The shepherds are going outside their comfort zones to offer care and support in this time.

We see this love in those who are making masks and hospital gowns in our congregation, in the Decorah area and throughout the world. The hours of time spent over sewing machines is such costly love. We also see this love in all who are wearing masks, even when they feel awkward, conspicuous and uncomfortable.

We see love in everyone sacrificing the joy of in-person worship out of love for those most vulnerable and out of concern for the common good. We see it in people giving financial gifts to support others, in those who are giving children tender care when they are so weary and anxious, and in everyone doing their work for the world in new ways.

Good Shepherd – In so many of these ways and more I see you following in Jesus’ way of costly love and I give thanks. I give thanks that Jesus continues to lead and guide us in the way of love through his word in scripture. This guidance is such a key gift that comes in relationship with Jesus.

Finally, in relationship with Jesus we are promised that we will do greater works even than he did.

Jesus’ work in his time on earth was to make the love of God visible. Yet, in his earthly body he was limited to doing that in Palestine for a few short years. Now Jesus’ followers make God’s love visible in all the world throughout the ages until the end of time. And, Jesus promises that as we do his work, he will give us what we need as we ask in his name.

This is such good news when we feel powerless and overwhelmed on this journey. We can and do make the love of God visible in this world. When we wonder where God is and what God is doing, we can look to all those making the love of God visible through their service as first responders, teachers, volunteers, advocates, parents, researchers, neighbors. Through them, through us, God is at work in our world. And, Jesus provides us what we need for this work as we pray in his name.

The first followers of Jesus were called the people of the way. This description reminds us that the life of faith is a journey guided by the one who is the way. There are so many unknowns in this journey with the coronavirus. We can’t tell how things will unfold. We don’t know where we are going or when we will get there.

Yet, we do know the way. We know Jesus, the way, the truth and the life.
Jesus gives us what we need.
Jesus gives you what you need.
Jesus gives you a place of rest in the heart of God.
Jesus guides you to walk in the way of love.
And, Jesus promises that you will make the love of God visible on the way.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Behind the Scenes at Meadowgate Farm

Behind the Scenes at Meadowgate Farm

Join Kathryn as she visits with Linda Donoghue and Bill deGraaf at their Meadowgate Farm near Spring Grove, Minnesota, about their life as shepherds.

Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2020 – “Passage, Protection, Pasture”

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday – Online Service
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 chock full of images and metaphors. We’ve got a sheepfold and a pasture, a shepherd and sheep, the gatekeeper and the gate, thieves and bandits and strangers. And, apparently Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate. This is a lot to comprehend – especially because pandemic brain is a real thing. Our brains are just not functioning quite the same in the midst of all of this. Yet, there is so much promise in this Gospel reading that we need to hear and remember. So, to help our pandemic brains, this week it seems good to use some alliteration.

Listen for lots of ‘P’ words today as we move through these metaphors.

First, Jesus provides us with passage, a way to move in and out. That language of Jesus as the gate can sound as if there is some fixed point we’re trying to reach. As if we can arrive and enter, then we’ll have it made. We’ll be saved. We’ll be secure. And, if we don’t feel particularly safe and secure, we wonder if we really have arrived. Maybe we don’t have enough faith. Maybe we aren’t really saved? Or, maybe there’s something better out there. Maybe we need to keep searching, keep striving, look elsewhere.

A closer look at the metaphor Jesus uses might be helpful. The point of a gate on a sheepfold is not to arrive at it, go inside it and stay there. If sheep just entered the sheepfold and stayed put, they wouldn’t last long. There isn’t enough grass or water inside. It’s too crowded. Sheep have to go out into the world to find green pastures and still waters. They have to go out in order to run and move and live.

Sheep are saved by passing into and out of the gate. They’re saved from danger each time they enter into the sheepfold at night. They’re saved from starvation each time they go out into pasture in the morning. The gate for the sheepfold provides the passage, the way into rest and the way out into pasture and the wider world. Their lives are saved, day after day, by going out and coming in through that gate.

We are saved, here and now, in the same way. We also need shelter and movement. We need to rest in God and we need to venture out. We need the rhythm of going in and coming out. When Jesus says he is the gate, he isn’t telling us that we have to arrive somewhere and enter and stay there. He is saying in him we are given passage into the way of life that saves us – the way of both resting in the shelter of God and moving out into the world.

Yet sheep don’t always go in and out of the gate on their own. They spook easily. They get stub- born. They get scattered. They need a shepherd who calls them by name and goes ahead of them.

They need a shepherd who leads them out into green pastures and back into rest.

And, that is why it is such good news that Jesus says he is both gate and shepherd. As the gate, he provides the way into rest and the way out into pasture and the wider world. He provides the passage. And, as the shepherd he leads us into what we need when we cannot get there ourselves. He goes ahead of us calling us into life, calling us into rest.

In Jesus the Gate and Shepherd we are given shelter and protection. This doesn’t mean that we will be safe from all harm. It does mean that we are given times of rest and reprieve, peace and well-being as we dwell with God. It does mean that we are sheltered in God and so saved from the power of despair and fear. It does mean that we can venture out into all the pastures of this world in trust and hope knowing our Shepherd goes before us.

Right now, these images are especially poignant when we have to spend so much time sheltered at home. We long to be out and about in the world. We long to gather in this place of rest, of sanctuary where we can see the other sheep in the flock.

As we discern when it is safe and wise to go out into the world, we need to take time to listen to our shepherd’s voice for guidance. And, our shepherd is at work to guide us through the words of scripture – calling us to love our neighbor as ourselves and be mindful of those who are most vulnerable, calling us to be thoughtful and wise and not governed by fear. Our shepherd is also at work through the wisdom of scientists, researchers and public health experts who are working for the protection and wellbeing of our world.

We also need to remember that even as we stay home, our shepherd still leads us into experiences of rest and shelter and experiences of engagement with the world. When we feel stuck at home and stuck mindlessly scrolling through social media, mindlessly staring at a screen …

Still Jesus gives us life-giving rhythms and patterns.
Still he leads us inward into times of worship and prayer.
Still he turns our focus outward into service for the world even when we remain at home.

Jesus is the Gate and the Good Shepherd.
He provides us with passage into protection, passage out into the pasture.
He is the way we experience the abundant life God longs for us all to know.