Sermon for Sunday, August 22, 2021 – “Clothed with Power”

Thirteenth 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 reading from Ephesians today tells us to “stand firm” against the forces of evil. We hear that language, “stand firm”, often these days. We’re asked, where do you stand? What’s your position on the issues of the day? Where do you come down?

We want and need to know where our politicians stand. If we use social media, we can often see where our friends and relatives come down, whether we want to or not. We value standing against injustice, standing up for others, standing strong in the face of challenges. And yet, sometimes all this putting our feet down and standing firm leads to very little movement on the important issues of our day, issues that matter for our lives as Christians.

We divide into camps, along battle lines. We dig in and refuse to budge. We demonize those on the other side of the line. If that strategy doesn’t appeal, then it often seems the only other option is to disengage, check out, and try to avoid conflict. Our Ephesians reading this week has often been used by Christians to demonize others and draw those battle lines.

Since Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the 4th century, Christians have used the idea of the armor of God and spiritual warfare to justify inter-Christian divisions, crusades, the Inquisition, and witch hunts. With that history and in our current polarized time, it can be tempting to write off this passage. It can feel so outdated and unhelpful.

The letter to the Ephesians certainly was addressed to people in a very different cultural context than our own. It was written to a young, tiny church that was persecuted by the militaristic Roman Empire. Even if those early Christians wanted to use this letter to justify battling enemies, they just didn’t have the power to do so.

I wonder what those Christians in Ephesians thought when they heard this? “You want us to put on helmets, shields and breastplates? Rome will crush us! Do you want to get us killed?” In their world people who wore armor were to be feared and avoided. The church had no political or military power, they were followers of Jesus, the one who’d taught “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.” Battle wasn’t an option, so wouldn’t it be best to try to avoid conflict with Rome?

Yet, how amazing it must have been for these persecuted Christians to hear that they did have power. They didn’t have to just avoid conflict, they could engage with the forces and powers bent on destroying them. And they didn’t have to use armor intended for death. They had access to a different kind of armor, a different kind of power.  They could clothe themselves in God’s truth, righteousness, and salvation, and join God’s work of bringing life and peace.

It also reframed the situation so the church could see that those Romans in helmets didn’t have as much power as they claimed – they were just bit players. The larger issue was cosmic powers bent on death and oppression. And even against those very intimidating forces, the church had been given the power to work for truth, faith, and peace. This letter helped those first Christians to see the real struggle more clearly and to recognize that they had much more power than they realized.

I think it can do the same thing for us. We often feel so powerless in the face of all the polarization and violence in our country and the world. We feel stuck between two extremes: putting our feet down and demonizing those on the other side, or trying to avoid conflict. We worry about how to deal with loved ones and neighbors who have opposing viewpoints. We wonder, will there ever be any movement? Or will battle lines harden and those on the sidelines just throw up their hands in despair?

This scripture passage reminds us that the struggle isn’t against other people. Our struggle is against larger forces that seek to dominate, oppress, destroy, divide, polarize, isolate, and lead us to despair. We’re all in the same boat: terrorists, that mean kid at school, your angry uncle, the violent mob, that woman who’s checked out. We’re all influenced by and up against forces that lead to death.

In the time of the early church people understood these forces to be personal or quasi-personal forces battling it out in the sky. Now we name them as systemic forces: ingrained patterns of oppression, injustice, tribalism, nationalism, racism and so on. Yet whatever we call them, we’re aware that there are forces that oppose God’s vision of abundant life for all creation. These forces are within and beyond us. They tempt us to claim we have a corner on God’s truth, to seek power for our own ambitions, to stand our ground in opposition to others, or to seek our own comfort and ignore the rest of the world.

Yet these forces do not have ultimate power. God in Christ has faced the power of death on the cross. For three days it looked as if violence and death were the last things standing. But Jesus rose from the dead. God’s life-giving power overcame death and all that seeks to separate us from God and one another.

And now God, in the risen Christ, freely gives us the resources we need to be part of God’s work in the world. Each new day we are given healing and forgiveness for all the ways we have sinned. We are also given a helpful and life-affirming ground on which to stand: We can stand upon the forgiving, reconciling, and healing work of Jesus. Standing on the good news of Jesus allows us to see all people as God’s beloved children and allows us to root and ground ourselves in the things which lead to life.

God also clothes us in what we need to move toward others in love. We are given shoes that will help us to proclaim the gospel of peace. We are given the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation. These uphold us and protect us so that we don’t need to be afraid of others. We can reach out, take risks, and seek to work with others to- wards God’s truth and righteousness. We are also given the word of God to convict, direct and guide us.

At times these tools will seem insignificant and irrelevant in the face of all the systemic forces of death. I would imagine the early church felt like that sometimes up against the power of Rome.

Yet this good news of Jesus empowered them for lives of great courage and love. They witnessed to the reconciling work of Jesus in so many ways.

And even as the church has often been compromised by systemic forces, for centuries the good news of Jesus has helped people, communities, and sometimes whole nations to rise up and challenge these powers. Death dealing empires, governments, and ideologies have risen and fallen, but the risen Christ abides with and for God’s whole creation. Each new day God clothes us in all that we need to join in God’s life-giving work for all the world.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.


Sermon for Sunday, August 15, 2021 – “Consuming God”

Twelfth 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.

Jesus as the bread of life is a beautiful, powerful metaphor, but does anyone else feel they’ve had their fill of it? This is the fifth Sunday that we’ve heard this theme. Today, more bread isn’t the only thing that seems a little much, a little excessive. Jesus says some really strange things. He says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And twice he talks about, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood.” If you heard these words without any context, you’d have to assume Jesus was talking about cannibalism. These are really unappetizing words.

I think I’ll always remember that this passage was the assigned scripture for my first Sunday as pastor here six years ago. I really didn’t want to start my ministry here thinking about flesh-eating followers of Jesus. I much prefer more palatable teachings about love and service and being kind.

No wonder Jesus’ first hearers disputed among themselves, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” How can this be? If we spend a lot of time around the church, we sometimes forget how strange Jesus’ words are, until we put ourselves in the place of someone who hasn’t domesticated or spiritualized them. If we hear these words, as if for the first time, we realize that Jesus is making some pretty radical claims. Jesus is saying the God of the universe has come, in the flesh, so that we can consume God. And that’s pretty intense. Do we really want a God who is that close, that intimately involved in our lives?

This isn’t a God who’s just icing on the top of a good life,  a light, fluffy, unobtrusive God. This is a God who wants to get under our skin, burrow within us, and seep into every nook and cranny of our beings. This is not a God who stays at a safe distance sending down teachings, ideas, and motivation. This is a God who wants to get into every aspect of our lives. It almost sounds like God wants to consume us, to claim us, and change us from the inside out.

That’s not the kind of God we’d likely choose off a menu. This is not a comfort food God – warm, fuzzy, not too demanding. A God who wants to be consumed and consume us is not all that appealing. And yet, the good news of Jesus is that God doesn’t wait until we desire or accept or believe or understand any of this.

God just comes to us in Jesus. And Jesus gives his very self to feed us with what we most need. God knows that on our own, we don’t choose what we really need. We consume so many empty calories.

We seek fulfillment in all sorts of things that leave us wanting. So, Jesus helps us to see how hungry and thirsty we are and awakens our yearning for God. God knows that we are so often consumed by things that drain our life – consumed by worries, fears, anger, stress. So, Jesus helps us identify what’s eating at us and sets us free from it. Jesus draws us into God’s all-consuming forgiveness, love, and abundance.

God also knows that our patterns of consumption keep us focused inwards on our wants and pleasures. So, Jesus comes to turn us outward towards our neighbor and creation, so that our lives will nurture others.  This is a joyful, life-giving way of being that nourishes us and all that God has made.

Jesus gives himself so that we might have what we really need. Jesus does this in all the ways he has promised. Jesus does this when two or three are gathered in his name, online or in person. When we worship in Jesus’ name we become more than we are as individual parts. We become Christ’s body for each other and the world. Through this beautiful, broken, beloved body of Christ, God challenges us, gets under our skin, disturbs us, and at the same time loves, feeds, blesses and transforms us. There are many, many times that the body of Christ in the whole church and in this congregation is not what we’d prefer. But it is just what we need to receive abundant life and to be a life-giving presence in the world.

Jesus, the Word made flesh, also meets us as we hear and reflect on the words of scripture, as we sing, make music, pray and share in silence. In all these ways Jesus frees and feeds us. And Jesus comes to us in the bread and wine saying, “This is my body, this is my blood given for you.” He doesn’t wait to see if we believe this or feel something about this. Jesus simply meets us where we are in a way that we can touch, smell, taste and see – in a way that can get into us.

Jesus also meets us out in the world, in the creation that feeds us, and in those the world considers least and the last. Jesus promises that how we treat those in need is how we treat him. Jesus is present in, with and among us, giving us what we need even if it’s not always what we’d choose.

Through Jesus’ presence, God gets under our skin.
God transforms us from the inside out.

Let’s take a moment of silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, August 8, 2021 – “A  Week’s Worth of Nourishment”

Eleventh 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.

These days, we spend a lot of time thinking about the food we eat. Seems like every day there’s a new diet promised to be THE answer for losing weight, preventing cancer, caring for the earth, and basically making you a much better person. We give a lot of thought to the food we consume. And that’s good, because our diets do significantly affect our lives, the planet and other people.

Jesus also invites us to pay attention to our spiritual diets. What helps us to experience the abundant, everlasting life that God gives us? What is toxic? What helps us to nurture others? Dietitians encourage keeping a list of everything we eat during the day to help us be mindful of our food choices. That’s helpful advice when it comes to our spiritual diets as well.

When we wake up in the morning, worries and concerns are often the first things on our plates. We stew about what the day will bring, how we’ll manage it, whether there’ll be enough time, or too much empty time. Our minds gnaw away at the stressors in our lives and soon we find we’re consumed by them. Then, often we open the morning paper or turn on the news, and take in more anxiety producing stuff. As Christians, we’re called to be informed and politically engaged, but too much news can make us really unbalanced.

Social media often gives us even more negativity. It can work us up ‘til we feel like sharks in a feeding frenzy. And everywhere we turn, someone is promising a quick fix to feel better. If you just get the right lotion or dish soap or smart phone app then you will be nourished, then your life will be balanced. There is so much pressure to consume more.

All of this leaves us drained and exhausted, unable to nurture relationships, tend to community and serve others. So we look to vacations, retreats, powerful experiences hoping those will feed and nourish us. But when our daily rituals are so depleting, we aren’t really replenished with just an occasional taste of something good. One healthy meal can’t make up for all the days of junk food and empty calories. We need a steady diet of life-giving nourishment.

That is what Jesus gives us. Jesus Christ, and our life in Christ, gives what we need for a nourished life that can nurture others. In many ways, Jesus provides for us the way grandmothers used to feed large extended families, the way many grandmothers still do. (I don’t mean to reinforce any gender stereotypes here – my husband is the main cook in our house – but I do love the image of Jesus as a grandmother.) With Jesus, and with grandma, there’s one really big meal on Sunday and then you’re sent home with food to last all week long.

On Sundays, Jesus really goes all out and puts on the spread. The whole entire family and all sorts of guests are invited to the table. We share stories from scripture and talk about what matters. We make music, we sing, we pray. We are drawn near to God and to all of God’s beloved children, that is all people. We share a meal together. And Jesus really pours himself into this meal, in fact he gives his whole self. Jesus gives of his very flesh and blood so that we might be filled with his abundant, eternal life. We are fed with God’s forgiveness and healing,

That’s Sunday.  But then, like grandma’s meal, it doesn’t end there.

We’re sent home with good nourishment for the rest of the week.
We’re sent with the wisdom, peace and challenges we’ve received at the dinner table so that we can chew on them throughout the week.
We’re sent with the Bible, God’s Word, and the invitation to gnaw on it and let it get into us.
We’re sent with the Holy Spirit so that we will always be fed by God’s presence with us.
We’re assured that through the power of prayer we can commune with God anywhere.

And we’re reminded, just like a grandma says, that we are part of a family. We are not alone – we have siblings in Christ.
We’re also charged to live out the values of this family – to live in ways that nourish others and creation, as Jesus calls us to do.

These gifts provide what we need for a healthy spiritual diet each day. Prayer can help us to not just mindlessly consume but rather to discern what we want to take in, what we want to avoid, what we’re called to try to make better. Simple routines each day can keep us connected to God’s nourishment. We can begin each day with a simple prayer of thanks, rather than diving into the worries. We can make the sign of the cross on our forehead to remind ourselves of Jesus’s presence with us. We can take a deep breath and a moment of silence before jumping into a task, as we do in our meetings here at Good Shepherd. We can end each day with a practice of gratitude rather than stewing about what went wrong, what we didn’t get done

Reading a portion of scripture each day, even just a taste, offers what we need to face the news and not be consumed by it. For through God’s word, we are assured that life prevails over death, that love is stronger than hatred, that God is present and at work amidst all the turmoil of our world.

We don’t do these things to try to earn God’s abundant, everlasting life. That is given to us, to you. Rather, these practices help us to experience that life deep in our bones. They give us what we need to live as Christ’s body for the sake of those who are hungry and hurting.

Beloved of God, Jesus has given his very self to provide for us now and forever.

We have all that we need to be nourished and to nurture others.

Come and eat!

Sermon for Sunday, August 1, 2021  –  “Enough for Today”

Tenth 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.

In this strange year of 2021, I find myself having more empathy for the people of Israel in the wilderness. We heard part of this story in our first reading today. It’s a story full of whining, com- plaining and grumbling. I usually feel some exasperation for the Israelites when I hear it. God has just rescued them from Egypt! Yeah, they’re not yet to the land of milk and honey but they are freed from slavery. They’ll get to the promised land soon; they just need some patience, some trust. They need to practice some gratitude.

Now I get it. Now I feel their pain. The Exodus from Egypt was epic, historic, unprecedented – words we’ve heard a lot over the past year. God delivered them. They had such hope for the future.

Yet then they find themselves in the wilderness facing new challenges and so much uncertainty. They don’t know the way to the promised land. They don’t know how long they’ll be in the desert. They don’t know where they’ll find respite. And they are just done with it all. They are weary and depleted. They need a break.

Sound familiar? We endured 2020 and the long COVID winter. Some of us had it easier, others lost so much. And then we were delivered!  God worked through science to give us vaccines and de- liver us from the worst of the virus. Safe, effective vaccines were developed in record time! They give us such astonishing protection against this plague.

Yet now there are so many new and recurring challenges: the Delta variant, lagging vaccination rates, forest fires, floods, smoke, political divisions, racial injustice, decision fatigue about what is safe and responsible regarding COVID. We keep hearing about a post-pandemic future and how much we will need to continue to adapt to meet it. But we’re really tired and we’re still in the wilderness. The promised land of a post-pandemic world, a new and better normal, feels a long way off.

What will this time require of us? What does the future hold? What will happen to our beloved institutions – to congregations, colleges, non-profits, small businesses? What will school be like this fall? These are the questions we carry with us in our wilderness. Sometimes they become much more than concerns. They become complaints, sighs, and anger. And that’s OK.

God can handle it. Over one-third of the Psalms are lament Psalms, God’s people crying out to God:   “Where are you?” “How long?” “Why have you forsaken me?” God can deal with all of this. God received the Israelite’s complaints long ago in the desert and provides what they need, manna and quails to eat. And God does the same for us now. As we bring our questions, concerns, and anger to God, we find that God is still providing for us in this wilderness just as God provided for the Israelites. One way God does this is to open our eyes to see the gifts that have been there, in creation, all along.

Many scholars believe that the manna was always there; the people just hadn’t noticed. Dr. Terry Fretheim points out that in the Sinai Peninsula there is a “a type of plant lice [that] punctures the fruit of the tamarisk tree and excretes a substance from this juice, a yellowish-white flake or ball.

During the warmth of the day it disintegrates, but it congeals when it is cold. It has a sweet taste. Rich in carbohydrates and sugar, it is still gathered by [local residents], who bake it into a kind of bread (and call it manna). The food decays quickly and attracts ants.” [1]

In the wilderness, the Israelites discover that God has always been providing for them. They have what they need for each day. They can’t see what the future holds. They can’t secure a future for themselves. They can’t store or hoard this manna. They have to take it one day at a time.

God is always providing for us, always at work in creation, but so often we miss it. We get fixated on ourselves, our tasks, our plans, our worries, and we fail to notice the simple, ordinary blessings that God provides each day. During long months at home, many of us noticed the simple gifts more: good coffee, sourdough bread, daily walks, a card from a friend. Our busyness and our plans were put on hold and our eyes were opened to God’s care in daily life.

Now in this different wilderness, God is still providing for us. There is blessing enough for each day. God is always working to help us to see this. And because we always struggle to see God’s care, God has come to be present with us in Jesus who shares our humanity.

Jesus joins us and works to open our eyes.
Jesus feeds us with God’s abundant love, with forgiveness, with community.
Jesus also breathes on us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that renews, upholds, and ignites us to face each day with hope and courage.

We don’t know what the future will hold. We don’t know how long we will be in this wilderness. Yet God is present with us, and God provides enough for this day.

And when we cannot see this and cannot trust this, God also receives our worries, anger, and complaints. God hears us and all our struggles. God holds us and all our worries. The Spirit works to help us take a deep breath and release it all to God.

Let’s do that now as we prepare to sing our hymn together.
Let’s breathe together and release all our concerns to God.

[1] Terrance Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 182.

Sermon for Sunday, July 25,  2021  – “Gifts Multiplied”

Ninth 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 need is great. There’s a large crowd, thousands of people coming toward Jesus. They are poor and hungry and hurting. Jesus wants to feed them. He poses the question to the disciples: How are we going to get these folks fed? Jesus’ disciple Andrew is aware of some resources, five loaves and two fish. “But,” he asks, “what are they among so many people?” In the face of great need, what Andrew has to offer seems so lacking.

It’s so easy to feel the same way about what we have to give – thinking it’s just not enough, just not worthy of the great need.

Recently some dear friends came to visit my husband Matt and me. They came to pray with us, sing with us, and care for us as we continue to recover from Matt’s serious car accident this past May.   We had a wonderful time together. We laughed and cried, sang and prayed. It was incredibly nourishing. I felt so fed and healed and so grateful for their care. A few weeks later we saw these friends and one of them said to me, “I feel awful that we didn’t bring you any food that day.” This is a wise, prayerful, faithful person. Yet even after she had fed us so profoundly, she struggled to trust that her gift was enough.

There are so many voices in our culture telling us we have to do more and be more – more, more, more. There are so many voices telling us we will never have enough to give, never be able to make a difference in the face of so much need. With all these loud voices clamoring we diminish and deny the gifts God has given us. We get paralyzed by all the hurting, hungry people in our own lives, in the world.

Yet Jesus is not deterred. Jesus persists in using what we have to feed and heal this hurting world. Just as he did that day on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus takes what we have, gives thanks and distributes it. He uses what we offer to share nourishment and abundance widely, extravagantly for everyone.

A wonderful example of this is the Krumkake ministry of this congregation. People give what they can. Some bring eggs, some butter or milk or sugar, some give money for ingredients. The body of Christ here receives this all with gratitude. Then everything gets combined into batter that fills tub after tub. And then more people show up to bake. Some give two hours of time. Others return day after day. One man who worked a great many shifts this year told me, “This is all I can do to help around here anymore.” What beautiful loaves and fishes he offers.

Then the Krumkake is sold at Nordic Fest, bringing joy and connection. And then all the proceeds from the sales are given away. Well over $2000 each year is given to help others. This is such a vivid example of how Jesus takes our gifts and multiplies them. A similar thing happens when we each do our small part for people in crisis. Some bring meals, some plant flowers or send gifts, walk dogs or mow lawns, some help with driving, some send cards, some pray without ceasing, others offer music. My own family has been so healed and nourished by all these gifts and more.

Jesus works through everything that is offered.

The same kind of thing happens with our voices when we sing together. We bring all our different voices – some that are trained, some that are timid, some that are cracking, some off-key. Jesus re- ceives them all, gives thanks and multiplies them into a beautiful chorus that nourishes and heals.

This is what Jesus does. This is what we can trust that Jesus will do that with the big challenges we face, including antiracism work. Addressing and healing the racism that plagues us can feel so overwhelming. We can get paralyzed by the need and our limitations. Yet God has given this con- gregation much more than five loaves and two fish for the essential work of antiracism. We can share our willingness to listen, our experiences, our hopes, our prayers, our advocacy, our longing for healing, our human compassion. We can trust that Jesus will receive our meager, broken offerings and will work in and through them to heal and feed. We can show up for the work trusting Jesus to use what we have.

This summer our Anti Racism Task Force is working to create ways for this congregation to offer our gifts as we do the work of adopting a racial justice statement and committing to action together. We will have two gatherings this September and further opportunities for conversation about antiracism in different aspects of our ministry. Watch for more information in the weeks to come.

God our creator has given us such gifts.
We all have so much more than five loaves and two fish.
We can offer what we have, trusting Jesus will multiply it to feed and heal.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.