Sermon for Sunday, September 26, 2021 – “Tending the Body”

Eighteenth 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.

Our Gospel reading today is so harsh, even grotesque. I appreciate the words of author Barbara Brown Taylor who writes, “The one thing I like about this text is that it defines the limits of Biblical literalism. Walk into the most Bible-believing church you can find – where the women do not wear trousers or speak in church, where the men do not swear oaths or mow their lawns on Sunday – go into a place as strict as that and I bet you won’t find many people with eye patches and wrapped stumps, because even the most literal Christians balk at this passage.”[1]

Sharing that quote feels like a bit of comic relief with this hard text. Yet I’m also struck by how easily I poke fun at Christians who believe differently than I do. I’m as bad as the disciples at the beginning of our passage today. Even if this passage isn’t to be taken literally, it is one we should take seriously.  When we are tempted to fixate on what everyone else is doing wrong, Jesus calls us to take a good, long look at ourselves.

As I’ve been trying to do that this week; in praying with this text, I found this reflection by Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes to be helpful. He writes:

“The hand that causes you to stumble is not at the end of your arm. It’s deeper than that. What is the hand in you that reaches for what is not yours? Cut it off. There is nothing you need to grasp.

“What is the eye in you that does not look with love? Pluck it out. The eyes of love are good enough.

“What are the feet in you that won’t trust, that lead you away from the path of love? Cut them off. You don’t need to go there.

“Does it sound harsh? Don’t worry, they’re not part of the real you. Besides, they’ll grow back.

“The Teacher is not asking you to maim yourself. He is inviting you to name what interferes, and to take away its power. He’s leading us out of the unquenchable fire of our fears, desires, and attachments.“Without our grasping, fearful, compulsive parts, perhaps then we will rely more on the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus.

“This pruning is how we become whole.” 

These words express what I hope will happen for us as a congregation through the racial justice work we’re doing together.

We need to name the ways racism and white supremacy impact this congregation.

We need to be led out of the hell on earth that we perpetuate and experience in a world so impacted by racism.

We need to be pruned.

We need Jesus to free us and guide us.

Pastor Garnaas-Holmes’ words help us to see that our problems are deeper than our physical bodies. Yet, especially when it comes to racism, it’s also important to pay attention to our actual bodies because our bodies internalize all the trauma and all the history that gets wrapped up into the word race.

I’m learning about this from Minneapolis based trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem. I’ve listened to his On Being interview with Krista Tippet three times and I’m now listening to his book My Grandmother’s Hands. He has such wisdom about how bodies are impacted by racism. Menakem has learned that our bodies carry racialized messages even when we don’t intentionally choose them. He’s found that, “The white body feels that it is fragile and vulnerable … it sees Black bodies as dangerous and needing to be controlled; yet, also, as potential sources of service and comfort.”

And ,“The Black body sees the white body as privileged, controlling, and dangerous.”[2]

These messages shape us on visceral, unconscious levels. These messages lead white bodies to, for instance, clutch bags tighter when on an elevator with a Black body or cross to the other side of the street when a Black body is approaching. They lead white teachers to notice Black kids acting out much more often than white kids doing the same things.

This means that racism shapes how we use our hands, feet, and eyes – the very body parts Jesus asks us to tend to in our Gospel reading today. And this means we can’t just tackle racism by look- ing at concepts and ideas. We can’t think our way out of this problem. We need to engage it at a deeper level.

So today we aren’t going to have an intellectual discussion about the draft racial justice statement.

We’ll do that too, but today we’re going to share in practices that help us tune into our bodies, spirits, and emotions. Last week we laid the groundwork for this and we’re going to build on that today. It’s also why the written statement is just one step in our racial justice work. We are also going to look at the embodied practices, patterns and policies in congregational life that need healing.

The practices we’ll use today are helpful when facing any of the things within us that need to be pruned – all our grasping, fearful, compulsive parts.

We’ll share in some silence and take some deep breaths together.

We’ll practice relying on God by opening with prayer, and by asking ourselves, “Where is God in this?”

We’ll listen and pay attention to how we feel and what we notice within – within our spirits, our bodies, our emotions.

We’ll welcome discomfort trusting that we are held in God and that God can use discomfort to prune and form us.

If you can’t stay for the session today, I invite you to follow these same practices when you read the draft statement later. There will also be questions to help you engage your body, spirit, and emotions as you read.

Our bodies have been so impacted by racism. Yet our bodies, all bodies, are loved and redeemed by God. And God, through Christ Jesus, is present in physical ways to heal us. Jesus came among us to heal with his hands, to walk the way of the cross and to look upon us with love. He gave his hands, feet, and eyes to heal and reconcile us.

By the power of the Spirit, Christ Jesus is still present with us now.

Christ is present in his body on earth, the church.

Christ is present in water and the word to give us new life.

Your body is loved and redeemed by God. You can enter racial justice work trusting you are held in God and that God is with you to bring healing.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cowley Publications, 1997), 118.

[2] Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies.    (Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017), 36.


Sermon for Sunday, September 19, 2021 – “On the Way”

Seventeenth 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.

The disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying but they were afraid to ask. And then they started to argue about who was the greatest. Those may seem like two random, unconnected events. Yet I wonder if there isn’t some correlation there. When we feel uncertain, confused, and anxious, it’s hard on our egos. It’s tempting, then, to try to save face, build ourselves up, and tear others down. It’s easy to get a bit argumentative.

This may have happened to me once, or twice, or more when trying to cook with my husband during most of our marriage. I didn’t grow up around a lot of cooking. My dad didn’t cook. My mom did sometimes, but she tended to view meals as nutritional opportunities. Taste was fairly low on her priority list.

Good food is a huge part of my husband’s family, and he loves to make it. His mom’s a great cook and he’s learned from her. He’s also just figured a lot of stuff out by trial and error and exploring. He makes it look effortless. I like to bake but dealing with all the prep, timing, and chopping involved in Larson style cooking felt intimidating. I’m also not great at remembering how to do things in the physical world, but didn’t want to ask again. Instead, I’d often get a little feisty and critical to deflect attention for my shortcomings. Or, I’d just check out and go pay bills instead.

Thankfully, Matt is committed to practicing patience and graciousness and mostly succeeds at it with me. And, during the pandemic I decided I wanted to cook more. As I practiced, I gained confidence, experience, and comfort with it all. I can now relax and enjoy time in the kitchen. I can ask Matt questions and sometimes even remember the answer. It took both grace and practice to help me really start cooking with fire.

We need grace and practice in so many areas of our lives, certainly when it comes to following the way of Jesus. His way of love and mercy and justice can seem really appealing. Yet there’s also so much about Jesus and his church that is challenging, countercultural and unsettling. It’s easy to get feisty and irritated or just check out altogether.

Thankfully, Jesus offers us both grace and practice. Jesus always starts with grace – choosing us even though we are just as clueless as his first disciples, calling us into abundant life with God though we’ve done nothing to deserve it. And Jesus leads us into a life of practice together. As Jesus’ followers we are always on the way. That’s a phrase we heard twice in the Gospel today in reference to the disciples – they were on the way. We are too.

In this life, we never arrive at some perfect point, our practice doesn’t make perfect. Instead, as Christ’s church we journey together on the way. In worship and community life, we learn the practices of faith including those described in our readings today. We practice serving and welcoming people on the margins of society. We practice yielding, making peace, and living with gentleness.

We practice asking hard questions, rather than arguing, when we don’t understand. These are difficult things.

We can’t do them on our own or just by trying harder.
We need practice. We need community.
We need forgiveness and grace when we fail because we will.
We need help to start again.
We are given all of this in Christ’s church as we are together, on the way.

This combination of grace and practice is why the church is a good place to have difficult conversations about racial justice as we will today. We begin with God’s grace, grace that frees us to con- fess our sin rather than trying to deflect it. When we feel anxious and unsettled about racial issues,

It’s easy to get argumentative and defensive. Or, we worry about making mistakes and so we check out.

Grace allows us to confess that we sin and fall short of the glory of God. It allows us to confess that by what we have done and left undone, we have perpetuated systems of racial injustice and violence. Grace also assures us that God works in and through our broken humanity so that we might be sustained to learn from our mistakes and continue to show up for the work of antiracism.

God’s grace and forgiveness makes new life and reconciliation possible. Grounded in this grace, we share in practices of faith.

We practice listening deeply to others whose experiences are different from our own.
We practice being uncomfortable.
We practice asking hard questions and acting with courage.
We practice yielding and letting go of privilege and power.
We practice living in the way of Jesus.

This is an ongoing work. We will never arrive at some point in which we are free from sin and racism. We’ll always be on the way, always needing to keep practicing. When we fail, as we will, we turn again to God’s grace.

Beloved of God, we have what we need on the way to practice antiracism together. We have what we need to get cooking with fire. I’m grateful to be in the kitchen and on the way with you.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, September 12, 2021 – “It’s Not About You”

Sixteenth 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.

It’s not about you.

There are some big topics covered in our readings this week. The takeaway I have from it all is the simple phrase – it’s not about you. And that’s good news for each of us.

There’s so much emphasis on the self in our culture: self-improvement, self-expression, self-care, self-esteem, selfies. All of these can be good things, but they can also become exhausting. How do you look in that selfie? Are you doing enough to care for yourself? You could try this diet, this life- style change, these ten simple steps. Are you living well and making a difference? Maybe, but when you look at your social media feed, maybe not. Does your life have meaning and purpose? Will your obituary show that you’ve lived a full life? All the focus on self can make us anxious, competitive, unsatisfied, prone to judging and gossiping about others.

In an opinion piece entitled “It’s Not About You”, columnist David Brooks discusses these problems and says our culture needs to give better advice to young adults.[1] He notes that when you listen to graduation speeches, you hear a familiar refrain: “Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams, find yourself.” This is all a lot of pressure. And, he argues, “most successful … people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and [a loved one] feels called to help cure that disease. A person works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so the department can function.” Brooks writes, “most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”

As Christians we are called by a problem – this world is not what God intends. God’s dream is shalom, the peace and wellbeing of all creation. God’s dream is that we live in harmony with God, one another, and all that God has made. We are clearly quite far from this dream. So, God calls us to face this problem within ourselves and in the larger world. God calls us to die to our sinful, self-centered way of being. And God calls us into the work of healing and redeeming this world.

That can sound intense and demanding. Yet it is also very liberating. It isn’t up to us to make something of ourselves, construct our own lives, secure our futures, or leave a legacy. God’s call is what gives our lives meaning, purpose and significance each day.

We all are called to different roles and various tasks. This past year, the members of our Anti- racism Task Force have been summoned by the pain of racism in our culture. Others were summoned by the work of making masks, serving as shepherds for flocks of Good Shepherd members. or to deepen prayer for the sake of the world. As we begin the Sunday School year, many are being summoned to work with our children and youth.

Yet God’s overall call for each of us is to be part of God’s work of shalom. As we respond to this call, our lives are constructed by God’s love, justice, and mercy. It’s not all about us. We are summoned by a problem beyond us. Yet as Christians, we aren’t just summoned by what is wrong. We are also summoned by our loving God who created us, who delights in us, who gives us life each new day.

When Jesus calls us to follow and give up our small, self-focused lives, this is good news. Jesus is saying to us: Your life is not about you, it is a gift from God. God is holding you and your life. You can surrender to God and experience God’s abundant life for you. You can surrender to God and discover what God will do through you.

It’s not about us – thank God! We can let go of the anxiety and exhaustion and judgement that come with a self-focused life. We can trust our lives to God. This does not mean that our lives will be easy. Our scripture passages today are clear that all of us will face suffering, especially when we follow in the way of Jesus seeking God’s shalom.

When suffering comes, it is again good news to hear the message – it’s not about you. Often when we suffer, we turn inward. We question what we’ve done to deserve this, why this has happened to us. We feel isolated from others whose lives seem so much easier. We think there’s something wrong with us. Our scriptures today reveal that suffering isn’t a sign that you’ve done something wrong or that God has abandoned you. It’s not about you.

Even the Messiah, God’s anointed servant, was not able to avoid suffering in this broken world.

Instead, he entered the pain of the world showing that there is nowhere God won’t go to heal and redeem creation. Faithfulness to God does not mean a get out of suffering free pass. It means following Jesus, the one who entered even death to bring new life for us all. As we follow, we will face suffering and struggle. Yet God is working in all things to bring new life for us and for all of creation.

Your life is not about you. It is about God and what God is doing for us all.
Your life is held in God.
You can let go and trust God who loves you, forgives you, and is always working new life for you and all that God has made.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer

[1] It’s Not About You By David Brooks, New York Times, May 30, 2011. All quotes from this opinion piece.

Sermon for Sunday, September 5, 2021 – “Your Labor is Not in Vain”

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Amalia Vagts, Preacher

Mark 7:24-37, James 2:1-17

I’ve been watching a lot of Ordination services lately. Ordination is a special rite in the church for rostered ministers of word, sacrament, and service. I’ve been watching so many because I recently graduated from seminary and many of my classmates have been called to ministry settings. (And yes, I hope that I will be too, maybe soon – can I get an Amen?)

One part f the ordination rite that I especially love is when the minister reads these words: “And be of good courage, for God has called you, and your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

These words – “your labor is not in vain”- fit our texts this morning with a range of examples of work, works, and labor, but also the calendar falling on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Al- though the day has taken on a pretty wide range of meanings from camping to store promotions to fashion advice, Labor Day was set aside to honor the movement to give dignity and rights to workers, as well as to honor the workers themselves.

In current American society, all of us participate in one way or another in the system of work. We are workers, we are bosses. We are without work. Some of us have retired from labor. Some of us are studying to prepare for working. Some of us welcome family members home at the end of the workday. Some work inside and some work outside the home. And some work ON the home.

We work to buy things. We sell things and trade things and want things. This system of working and labor does something to us. It creates opportunity and hope and joy and possibility, and in- justice and harm and illness and inhumanity. The system creates winners, losers, great loss, great fortune. Work drives greed and want and feelings of success and favoritism and desperation.

The apostle James talks about not only the results of this system of work, but also the works of love and care done by Christ-followers. And in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs works of healing, first to the Syrophencian woman’s daughter, and then to the one who cannot speak clearly or hear. Jesus touches him, sighs, and says to him, “Be opened.”

That sigh is more like a pressured groan. In its original language it is described as being like the exertion of childbirth. And the word Jesus speaks in Aramaic, ephphatha (eff-e-THA), is like the opening of a womb with the first born. The groan of childbirth, the opening of the womb: These are images of labor. This is life-giving, transformative work.

Jesus’ work transforms himself, the woman and her daughter, the man and his community, and you to new living, into a new kind of labor of love – the life-giving labor of being a follower of Christ. This new living in Christ, this life-giving labor is what James is talking about, being church: not going to church, not having a church, or joining the church, or leaving the church. James is talking about being church. Churching. If Church is the Body of Christ, then churching is being the Body of Christ. We are called to be the Body of Christ for the world, following the life and pattern of Christ who listens, touches, heals. These are verbs, this is action, this is a labor of love.

The “good news” that Jesus promises is that being Christ’s body is not about having the right relationship with God through right thinking, right behavior, right belief, right works. You are created in goodness by God and made just, justified, in order to be Christ’s body for the world.

Your right relationship with God in Christ is God’s gift, wholly separate from anything you do,  or don’t do.

The Gospel does do something to you, however. It leads you to a new way of being. The good news is that God perfecting love in Jesus Christ means you are free from a constant focus on perfecting yourself in order to be okay by God’s standards. This frees you to spontaneously love yourself and love, care and work for your neighbor as you do for yourself.

We confess that Jesus was conceived, born, suffered, died, and rose again to release you, to free you. There is no human joy or pain that is not fully known by God.

Jesus listened to the woman who begged for healing for her daughter. Jesus listened, and was opened. The woman spoke with conviction to the one she knew could answer her need. Ask yourself: In places where you have power, how deeply are you listening to the needs of others, and are you open to transformation? In places where you don’t have power, are you speaking with courage and conviction about your needs? A crowd of people brought forward one who needed healing. Jesus touched the one who was suffering. Ask yourself: How close do you get

to those who are suffering?

Jesus heals through listening, asking, helping, and getting close to those who suffer. Our world needs this healing from Jesus. And our world needs works of love from those of us who claim Jesus as our path.

This Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, remember you are a worker in God’s Beloved Community.

From as close as your neighborhood or dorm, to homes and schools in Afghanistan, to clinic waiting rooms, to the flooded basements of apartments in New York City, the need is clear and great. We can’t fix all of it, but as individuals and as a community we can labor with love and mercy. And as a faith community, we must wrestle with how we respond to the needs of the world: with a blessing only, or with faith and works of love that supply bodily needs, that alleviate hunger, illness, loneliness, suffering?

In the heart of the Triune God, you are enough and necessary and known and understood. You are freed to love, care and work for all the world. Christ says to you, “Be opened.” Be transformed and birthed into new living. And be of good courage, for God has called you and your labor is not in vain.

Sermon for Sunday, August 29, 2021 – “Reflecting Love”

Fourteenth 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.

The second lesson today, the Letter of James, encourages us not to be like people who look in the mirror and then just go away without anything changing.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you focus on all the flaws, the dark circles under your eyes, the acne or the wrinkles (or both!). Do you notice all the ways you don’t measure up to your own or others’ standards? Or do you think, “You know it could be worse”, or even “Hey there, looking pretty good?” Does it depend on the day and the lighting?

What happens when you look into a metaphorical mirror? When you take a good long look at yourself and your life, what do you notice? Do you focus on your brokenness and failings? Or do you think, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as that person.”

Whether they’re literal or metaphorical, spending a lot of time looking into mirrors, or looking at our selfie pictures, rarely makes a positive impact on our lives. If you fixate on your failings you can start to think “I’m so messed up it is hopeless, I might as well just binge on ice cream and TV.” Or, you can develop a driven anxious sense that “I’ve got to fix this.” It’s also easy to get self-righteous as we look at others. Using ourselves as a reference point so often leads us to be judgmental of ourselves or others. It can lead to one of two ditches, despair or pride.

Often, we approach the Bible in the same way we look at ourselves in the mirror – as if the Bible is all about us and how good or bad we come off looking. We use the Bible to make harsh judgments of ourselves and others. This kind of approach can cause us to hear Psalms like Psalm 15 that we just sang and think, “Wow, I’m so far from walking blameless and doing what is right and speaking truth from my heart it’s hopeless; why even try to be better.” Or it can lead us to listen to the read- ings today and think, “You know I do give money to help widows and orphans and I don’t get hung up on rules like those scribes and Pharisees in that Gospel reading today. I guess I’m doing OK.”

When we approach the Bible like that, it doesn’t do anything for us. It just reflects back to us what we already think, what we already feel about ourselves and the world. When we approach the Bible in this way it has about as much effect on us as gazing into a mirror does – very little changes.

So, the Letter of James encourages us not to be like people who look in a mirror, but instead to look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, God’s law.

That may seem like it gets us back into the same predicament – considering how often Christians have viewed God’s law as a kind of measuring stick that can be used to beat up on ourselves and others. But God’s law was not intended to be a measuring stick; it was intended to be a gift. Like the rest of what we find in the Bible, God’s law isn’t all about us. It’s about God and how God works with and through people.

When God first gave the law to the Hebrew people, something we heard a bit about in the reading from Deuteronomy today, it was given to remind them that God had chosen them, that they were God’s people. The Hebrew people hadn’t done anything to deserve to be God’s people. They hadn’t cleaned up their act or proven to be better than all the rest of the people out there. God simply said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” They weren’t a great and powerful nation, they were a small, weak band of nomads. But when God chose them and gave them the law, they were given a new birth and a new identity as God’s people, as people who were blessed to be a blessing for the world. God gave them a law to show them and the world that they were God’s own, that God was so very near to them and that God would lead them into the ways of life.

After years of slavery in Egypt, the law gave them new identity and freedom from oppression. And then 40 years later, after they had refused to trust and follow the law and spent 40 years wandering in the desert, the law was given again to lead them into new life in a new land. God’s law wasn’t intended to be a measuring stick, it was given as a gift to remind the people that God had chosen them, that their identity came from God, that God was with them, and that they were to be a blessing to the world.

God’s law and God’s entire word now does the same thing for us. We were not part of that original bunch of God’s chosen people. But out of God’s original chosen people came Jesus. Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, makes it known that God so loves all people. All of us broken, wandering, sinful, self-righteous people are God’s beloved and chosen people. This Word from God, the word that we are loved and chosen, gives us a new birth and a new identity. We are not just the people we see in the mirror, we are broken and beloved. Our value does not come from comparing ourselves to others. We are God’s good creation as is everyone else.

This word from God is the law of liberty. It sets us free from the despair, anxiety and self-righteousness that can arise when we use ourselves as reference points. It leads us out of slavery to our own judgments of ourselves and others. God’s judgment is what matters and God has looked at the whole world and said, beloved.

This word of God also sets us free from wandering, wandering aimlessly trying to find meaning and purpose. Our purpose, in all that we do, is to live as God’s beloved and to help others know that they are God’s beloved. In the way we speak, in the way we treat others, in the way we respond to those in need we are guided by this law of liberty – that God loves the world and calls us to do the same. As we look into and are shaped by God’s word of liberty and promise, we become not only hearers of the word but doers of the word for the sake of the world God loves.

You are God’s beloved. Reflect that love in all you do.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.