Sermon for November 6, 2016 – “No More Ladders”

November 6, 2016
All Saints Sunday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

No More Ladders

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

In American culture, there’s a lot of emphasis on going up. We value upward mobility. We say, ”Things are looking up, onward and upward, it’s on the up and up.” We want faith to be uplifting and to provide mountain top experiences.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, the version more familiar to us than the version we heard from Luke today, seems to fit our religious sensibilities. According to Matthew, it happened up on a mountaintop and it seems to lay out qualities we should aspire to achieve. We should become poor in spirit, or humble; we should become merciful; we should hunger and thirst for righteousness; we should strive to ascend to great heights of faith like saints before us. (I actually don’t think that is what Jesus is saying in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but it’s how it often gets interpreted.)

The way Luke remembers Jesus’ famous sermon doesn’t let us go there at all. Luke’s version, and the whole Gospel of Luke, upends all our “moving on up” thinking. For one thing, in the Gospel of Luke Jesus doesn’t give his sermon from lofty mountain heights. He has been up on a mountain praying but then, we’re told, “He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people and began to heal them.” Rather than remaining at lofty heights, Jesus came down into the midst of the crowd of people who were vulnerable and in need and said, “Blessed are you who are poor”- not poor in spirit like Matthew says, just poor; “Blessed are you who are hungry”- not hungry for righteousness, as in Matthew, but just plain hungry; “Blessed are you who are down and out, downcast, at the bottom of the ladder. God is with you, God is here to help you. You are blessed. And woe to you who are high up on the pecking order. You may not know it now but you are in a really perilous position, clinging to the top of a rickety ladder, trusting in wealth and honor rather than God. You are in for a great fall.”

Back in Jesus’ day, this was pretty radical stuff. Wealth was considered a sign of God’s favor and poverty a sign of God’s judgement. To say that God was with the lowly was a challenge to the whole religious order that kept some on top and other below. In our day, things have changed a lot but we still tend to look down on the poor and look up to the wealthy. The poor are judged for not being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

And even if we reject that bootstrap mentality, many of us still prefer to avoid a lot of contact with people who are really downcast or really down and out. We much prefer uplifting, upbeat stories about people who overcome great odds, inspiring rags to riches stories We also tend to think that we are where we are on the economic and social ladders because of our own striving and upstanding moral character. We disregard all the other accidents and privileges that have positioned us where we are. So to hear Jesus bless those at the bottom and critique those of us who are quite wealthy, by global standards, is pretty unsettling. What do we make of all this?

Is Jesus just reversing the whole ladder by putting the poor on top and bringing the rich down into judgement?

Luke tells us over and over that Jesus has come to lift up the poor and bring down the mighty. So is Jesus just flipping the ladder around? That’s how some have interpreted it. Then our only hope really is to try to become poor. Except that in Jesus, we see that God is really not interested in ladders, in having people on top and people on the bottom, people trying to scramble up and people looking down on others. Rather God longs for us all to have abundant life together in God. So God in Jesus is doing something much more radical than just changing who gets to be on top and who has to be on the bottom. God is lifting up the poor and bringing down the mighty so that we’ll all be on the same level place with one another.

God is making all the ladders tumble and fall onto level ground so that they become paths that connect us to one another. None of us is better than another, none of us deserves to be higher or lower. We all are vulnerable and valuable, we all are dependent upon God and one another. Woe to us when we think people’s value comes from the heights they have achieved rather than from God. Woe to us when we think wealth will protect us from vulnerability and depend upon wealth rather than God. Woe to us when we think we’re saints because we’re nice people. Rather, we live out our God given identity as saints of God when we acknowledge that we are vulnerable and look to God and when we honor the value of all people.

Jesus came down from the mountain to challenge all ladder-like thinking, to lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty so that all could be connected there in that level place. Jesus does the same today. Jesus is here among us to bless and heal all who are poor, hungry and reviled and to comfort all who weep. Jesus is also here among us to bring us down from the perilous heights of trusting ourselves and judging others. Jesus is here to help us know our connection to one another in the communion of saints. Jesus is here to help us experience the abundant life God gives us now and forever.

Thanks be to God.

Praying the News, “Psalms and Hymns” – November 2016

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PRAYING THE NEWS: Ways to pray before, during, and after

As people of faith, the watching, listening to, reading, and discussing the news offers us an opportunity to pray. Prayer is a positive, life-giving response to the news. Prayer lifts our concerns before God, asks for help and guidance, and helps us find a faithful response, no matter what the news presents.

Suggestions on ways to pray before, during, or after the news recently have been posted. Today some suggestions are posted about scripture passages and hymns that may be useful.

Psalm 23
Psalm 27
Psalm 34
Psalm 61
Psalm 121

Hymns:  All hymns are located in the hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, unless otherwise noted.

on trust:
Amazing Grace – 779
Lord of All Hopefulness – 765
When Peace Like a River – 785

on hope:
O God, Our Help in Ages Past – 632
O Love That Will Not Let Me Go – Lutheran Book of Worship 324
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name – 634
When Peace, Like a River – 785

on love:
Lord, Speak to Us, that We May Speak – 676
Jesus Calls Us; O’er the Tumult – 696

Offered by Jane Jakoubek, Good Shepherd Member and Spiritual Director

Praying the News, “Before” – November 2016

images-1PRAYING THE NEWS: Ways to pray before, during, and after

As people of faith, the watching, listening to, reading, and discussing the news offers us an opportunity to pray. Prayer is a positive, life-giving response to the news. Prayer lifts our concerns before God, asks for help and guidance, and helps us find a faithful response, no matter what the news presents.

Here are some suggestions on ways to pray before the news. Additional posts on subsequent days will feature suggestions on ways to pray during or after the news.  Suggestions about scripture passages and hymns that may be useful will also be posted.


Pray that God will help you see each news item through the lens of faith, hope, and charity.

God, help me to remember you are already present in all places, people, and situations. Help me to know everything in today’s news is already in your care. Fill me with trust and faith as I watch the news this morning.

   God, help me remember your promise that you bring new life out of pain, suffering, and death. Fill me with hope as I listen to the news tonight.

God, help me remember your commands to feed your sheep and love my enemies. Cleanse my heart and mind from judgments and easy answers. Fill me with your compassion and love as I prepare to read the news now.  

Offered by Jane Jakoubek, Good Shepherd Member and Spiritual Director

Sermon for October 30, 2016 – “Called Into Relationship, Called Into Justice”

Sermon For October 30, 2016 – “Called Into Relationship, Called Into Justice”

Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Reformation Sunday
October 30, 2016
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. Amen.

Imagine being Zacchaeus that day. He’s short, he’s a despised tax collector working for the oppressive Roman power, he has stolen from his neighbors. When he goes out in public, does he hope to escape notice, does he want to hide from the angry stares?

That day, somehow, he knows he needs to see Jesus. Things are not right in his life. He needs to see Jesus. So he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs up into a tree – such an undignified thing to do. The tree gives Zacchaeus a view, but is he hoping he can stay hidden and just take stock of Jesus from afar? Then Jesus stops in front of him, pokes his head up through the branches of the tree, and calls Zacchaeus by name and says, “Hurry, come down, I want to be in your home, I want to be with you.” Jesus calls Zacchaeus out of his safe perch into a feast. And, this feast of Jesus’ love leads Zacchaeus to embrace God’s grace and God’s justice. Zacchaeus commits himself to justice – to sharing his wealth with the poor and making reparations to all those he has defrauded.

Salvation, a reorientation of life towards God, happens for Zacchaeus as Jesus draws Zacchaeus out into relationship with God. The relationship is so gracious as to be unbearable apart from joyful repentance  and release of all he has been hoarding. As Zacchaeus is drawn out, he awakens to the reality that he has participated in both systemic and personal injustice. He is part of the massive, oppressive Roman tyranny and he has personally made dishonest choices. Zacchaeus commits himself to systemic justice through relinquishment, or the sharing of his wealth with the poor. He moves toward personal justice by making reparations to the individuals he has betrayed.

Today, we too need to see Jesus. Our lives are not as we hope they would be. Things are not right with us.

We do not live in God’s ways of justice and mercy. We need to see Jesus. Yet, part of us would also like to stay at a safe distance, taking in everything from afar. So today, Jesus comes to us as he came to Zacchaeus. He invites himself into our lives and our homes. He calls us into a feast of love.

Granted, we won’t see Jesus of Nazareth’s piercing, compassionate eyes; we won’t see those particular arms held open in welcome. but Jesus comes to us still. Jesus is the living Word of God: the Word that is still at work in our world, the Word that transformed Martin Luther and inspired the Reformation, the Word that still has the power to draw us into relationship with God, again and again. Jesus, the Word, comes to us as words of scripture are read, preached, shared and sung among us today. We see Jesus as two or three are gathered together. We see Jesus in the faces of the least and the lowly throughout our world.

Jesus comes and calls out our name and says, “Come down, I want to be with you.” Jesus draws us each into a gracious relationship of salvation – into a reorientation of our life towards God, a reorientation that we need over and over each day. As we experience this again and again, like Zacchaeus, we long for our lives to reflect more of the love and the welcome that we ourselves have received. We feel compelled to examine our lives, learn to release our hold on things, and to commit to God’s mercy justice. And, Jesus meets us in these desires to continually draw us out, to continually reorient us towards God, to continually save us.

Today, we need to see Jesus and he is here. So come let us eat with Jesus. But first, let’s rest a moment in the love and welcome Jesus gives us.



Sermon for October 16, 2016 – “How Can We Keep Praying?”

Sermon for October 16, 2016 – “How Can We Keep Praying?”

Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost
October 16, 2016
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

“How Can We Keep Praying?”

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart- a parable that seems to indicate that persistence pays off. So, if we’re persistent and have a positive attitude and enough faith, then God will reward us and make everything better. Just put on a happy face and keep on keeping on. At least that’s the way this parable often gets interpreted in our American context.

I know the big take away I had from my confirmation class was ‘have faith and be happy’. That could be because the year I was confirmed our youth group also did a production of the musical Bye Bye Birdie.

Apparently there weren’t any other stories, from say the Bible, deemed valuable enough for our musical energies. One of the songs from Bye Bye Birdie is entitled “Put on a Happy Face” as in … “brush off the clouds and cheer up, put on a happy face.” Those lyrics messed with my understanding of Christianity for a long time. But even without an awesome youth group dinner theater experience,-a typical American interpretation of this parable is that if we’re really sincere then … “gray skies are gonna clear up” because God fixes everything for those who truly have faith.

In this interpretation the widow is seen as a kind of ‘little engine that could’ who just keeps on chugging – I think I can, I think I can – and then finally gets the attention of the big guy upstairs who grants her request and pushes her over the mountain. Except sometimes the mountain is crowded with people fleeing from Syria; sometimes the skies stay frighteningly dark for days of torrential rains and hurricanes; sometimes the daily news makes it hard to put on a happy face. Sometimes we persist in praying over and over and over and see no change. What does this parable have to say to us then? How do we pray always and not lose heart in the face of the suffering around us?

We can start to despair – thinking we just don’t have enough faith or persistence, or that God doesn’t care and prayer doesn’t really matter. To avoid that despair, we sometimes try to ignore suffering and the questions it raises. We approach prayer and worship as a chance to get away and get refueled so that we can just keep on chugging along on our merry way. Yet Jesus’ parable is not about a perky, persistent little engine that gets over the hump with the right amount of faith and a good dose of divine intervention.

Jesus’ parable is about a widow, a widow stridently demanding justice when justice has long been denied.  Widows receive special attention in scripture and deserve our attention as well. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in society. They knew that they were at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control, dependent on the men around them for financial security. Yet Biblical widows also knew that God saw them and valued them. Throughout scripture we hear repeatedly that God cares about widows and orphans, that God commands people to care for them as well. Widows in scripture were people who lived with a deep awareness of two powerful realities – life is hard AND God is faithful. They looked suffering in the face and trusted God. That stance helped them play key roles in God’s story. Widows were not only dependent and vulnerable, they were also very faithful agents of God’s work in the world.

A widow trusted God and shared the last food she had with the prophet Elijah and kept him alive. But right after that, her son died.The widow was furious and goaded Elijah into raising her son from the dead.

The widow Naomi told her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth to return to her own family, but Ruth stayed with Naomi and showed her great loyalty and love. The Hebrew word used for Ruth’s love is ‘Hesed’, the same word used repeatedly to describe God’s steadfast, loving kindness. Then Ruth went on to become an ancestor to Jesus. Widows got special attention from Jesus including the widow who gave all she had at the temple, trusting that God would care for her. Biblical widows faced the brokenness of the world while also looking for and responding to signs of God’s saving, active presence.

This capacity to see and hold both realities – brokenness and God’s faithfulness – often develops in people who have gone through great personal trials. This capacity is also deepened when we pray not as a way to escape but as a way to engage the world. When we pray as a way to engage God’s world, we bring all the pain to our prayer and we boldly pray for God to see, hear, act and respond. Sometimes this feels futile, sometimes God feels like a distant unjust judge; but scripture shows us that God chooses to act in the world because of the prayers of people. God has entered so deeply into relationship with us that it matters to God when we pray about the pain of the world. Our lives and the biblical stories are not happy musicals or morality tales about little engines, so things don’t work out in a neat, ‘happily ever after’ way. But, God works in and through the brokenness to bring life out of death,.This is what God does.

So we bring the pain to God again and again; but we don’t stop there. We also pray for help in seeing what God is doing, how God is bringing life out of death, and how we can join God’s work in the world. We look for signs of the new life God is bringing about in and through us. Our prayer helps us to pay attention to these signs of life and then work to make them more real and more visible. When we approach prayer in this way it is possible to pray always. As we respond to the brokenness, we’re praying. As we look for signs of life, we’re praying.

And it is possible to not lose heart. As we look at the devastation in Syria we also see the White Helmets, the volunteers who have saved more than 60,000 Syrian lives. As we look at the effects of flooding and hurricanes we also see neighbors, churches and communities bringing help. In a time when our national conversation has become so vile, we see people speaking out with courage and compassion. These signs feel small sometimes, as small as a widow’s request or meager offering at the temple; but they point to another reality at work in the world. Prayer helps us to see and be part of that new reality. Prayer also helps us to persist in working for justice like this persistent widow, even when justice is long delayed.

It helps us to speak out, call leaders to account and stand up to injustice.

So this week, let’s pray with all the news of the week. As we read, listen to, or watch the news, let’s keep our Psalm for this week, Psalm 121, close and pray it together as we hear about all the brokenness. When we feel overwhelmed, let’s turn to the Psalm and be reminded that God is working new life and we can be a part of that work. “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. The Lord will not let your foot be moved nor will the one who watches over you fall asleep. Behold, the keeper of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

Thanks be to God.