Sermon for August 28, 2016 – “Real Life Lessons; Holy Meaning”

Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2016 – “Real Life Lessons; Holy Meaning”

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2016
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Amalia Vagts, Preacher; Pr. Marion Pruitt-Jefferson, Presiding

Luke 14:1, 7-14
Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

“Real Life Lessons; Holy Meaning”

 It’s been a hard week in our town and in this congregation.

I’ve told Pastor Amy that there are some days when I wish I could come to church, but just lie down in one of the pews for the whole service.

Maybe you feel like that this morning.

Too often when we come to church, we feel like we have to put on a front so that people don’t know how messed up our lives really are.

Some in our congregation woke up on Wednesday morning to their home surrounded by water or coming down around them. The rivers and creeks cut off parts of the town from the other – pulled down trees, destroyed crops and gardens, homes, and recreational areas.

Pastor Marion and I are up here today because our dear Pastor Amy lost her beloved friend Sarah unexpectedly this week. This was the family Pastor Amy preached about a few weeks back – remember, the “moms” and the “dads” story? Pastor Amy spent the last few days with Sarah’s family and the people of Our Savior’s Lutheran in Faribault, where Sarah was lead pastor, as they grieved this sudden and painful loss and prepared for her funeral service tomorrow, which Pastor Amy will help lead. Pastor Amy, Matt, Nathan, and Abby are in deep mourning and will need our care.

Others in our town are grieving the death of Ryk Trytten – young and lost to cancer after only a year of illness.

Tanya, Faust and Eli have been packing up their home and preparing to move – there is joy in the journey, but sadness too.

You may be experiencing a loss or pain that others of us here don’t even know about. Yours might feel too big to talk about –

Or too small. Our week started with the loss of our chickens to a raccoon. Most weeks, I would have talked about it – and about the way our friends pitched in to help us out. This week, I kept it to myself for the most part because it felt so small.

And, yet somehow, we are all here this morning. We came to be together.

We came to receive or give something this morning through worship together. And our readings today are all about giving and receiving. They offer real life advice with holy meaning.

In the second parable in Luke, Jesus instructs hosts to throw dinners for those who cannot repay.

Don’t invite your friends, family, and rich neighbors, Jesus says. They’ll just have you over the next week and repay you. Instead, host those who cannot repay you, because then you will be blessed and among the righteous at the resurrection.

This week, with flood recovery, I experienced more of us offering help than asking for it. It’s easiest, I think, to see ourselves as the host throwing a party for those who cannot repay us. It’s much hard to imagine being the person without power who needs help.

Think of a time when you have been helped by someone – did you accept their help without feeling the need to somehow repay them?

As we listen to this reading, we think – oh, what unfortunate person could I help, who couldn’t repay me, and thereby guarantee that I will be blessed and among the righteous?

But do you remember the lesson from Proverbs and the first parable in today’s Gospel? In that one, Jesus teaches us to not take the seat of honor, in case you get moved down the table for someone who is more important than you.

I think these two parables are more linked than they appear to be on the surface.

I mentioned earlier that we lost our chickens this week. Our dear friends Mark and Kristen found them while we were out of town. They took care of everything. They consoled us. They made dinner for us when we arrived home. They stayed to dig the hole and bury the animals in our backyard.

For dinner that night, I insisted on pulling out the best wine we had in our house. “Just give us the cheap stuff!” Mark insisted, but I could not bear accepting all they had given without showing my gratitude.

In a sense, I was putting myself up at the front seat of honor – making a display of my generosity and in essence, trying to overshadow all they had done.

This is a connection between these two parables. There are times when all of us truly need help, when we need to be humble. Sometimes our friends and family will provide it. Sometimes strangers will. Sometimes what we need will require God’s help. Imagine admitting you are powerless, you are in need, you are empty and accepting the hand that reaches out to assist you. Accept this grace. These are real life lessons – with holy meaning.

There is another lesson in this first parable too. Think for a moment about a time when you stepped into a place of honor that wasn’t yours.

I was talking with a friend the other day about this parable. When I asked him if he could think of a time like this, he said, oh, yes, immediately.

He told me about being a boy and going to his first middle school baseball practice. His older brother was a star on the varsity team, and so for the first day he took one of his brother’s uniforms and wore it to practice. He imagined how cool he would appear to his peers when they saw that he was closely connected with older, more experienced players.

At the very beginning of practice, as he stood feeling proud and powerful in his shirt, the coach called his name across the field. He told the boy he was wearing a uniform that he hadn’t earned, and to take it off. The boy had gone from feeling cool and powerful, to feeling ashamed.

It was that feeling of shame that got me wondering about the effects of public embarrassment. In my own life, I’ve described this to friends as that “hot shower of shame” when I recall moments in my own life when I’ve presumed to be better than I am or someone who I’m not.

The memories of moments like these – many which do come from our younger years –remain present in our lives.

I don’t think that the lesson we should take away from this is to become completely subservient people, always taking the worst seat – or the last pew!, the smallest serving, and the one piece of cake that has no decoration on it.

Anyone who grew up Lutheran does not need that lesson.

I think the lesson is that God asks us to embrace who we are. We don’t have to pretend to be more than we are. We can leave space for our host –God to recognize and us our true selves.

The way we live our lives each day connects to the holy and renewing life we are promised by God through Jesus. Through accepting help, we bless others and experience grace. By admitting it when we are low, we have the opportunity to be lifted up. By keeping our lives free from the love of money, we are open to receive God’s gifts. Through offering hospitality to a stranger, we encounter the holy. Real life lessons; holy meaning.

This week, let someone help you. Do not repay them. Be open to the possibility that you are a person in need. In this, you open yourself up to the love, peace, and grace that only God can give.




Report from ELCA Churchwide Assembly

Sermon for August 21, 2016 – “Set Free to See”

Sermon For Sunday, August 21, 2016 – “Set Free to See”

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 21, 2016
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Luke 13:10-17; Isaiah, 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29

“Set Free to See”

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

Imagine what it was like to be the woman in our Gospel reading. For the first time in 18 years she could stand up straight, move freely, raise her head to the sun. Imagine how her perspective changed as well. For 18 years her eyes had been cast down at the ground. Once she was raised up her gaze was lifted up as well. She could take in the whole horizon; she could look a loved one in the eye. The whole world was now in her line of sight.

She could see so many reasons to give thanks and praise to God.
Yet just as she was being lifted up and her vision expanded, a synagogue leader’s eyes were narrowing in anger and judgment. When the leader saw this woman being healed on the Sabbath he become indignant.

We’re told “he kept saying to the crowd that she was wrong to seek healing on the Sabbath.” Rather than rejoicing that she was lifted up, he criticized her and told her she should have waited to seek healing. Just as she stood tall for the first time in 18 years, he sought to take her back down a notch. This angered Jesus; Jesus rebuked the leader and those he’d stirred up. He turned their argument about the Sabbath on its head and “all his opponents were put to shame.” Jesus lifted the woman up and tore his opponents down.

This has all the makings of a made-for-TV drama – the moving story of someone lifted up by a powerful hero, the bad guys who interfere, the happy ending when the good guys win. It has the makings of an inspiring story from the Olympics – a humble person lifted up by a heroic coach and opponents put to shame. It sounds like a story of winners and losers with clear good guys and bad guys. Or, at least that is often how this sounds in a culture steeped in election coverage, poll results, Olympics results and reality TV shows in which some people advance to fame and some are put to shame.

We’re often tempted to use stories like this to judge ourselves the winners and our opponents the losers, to think that we are on the side of helping people and our opponents are angry hypocrites who should be convicted by Jesus, who should be ashamed of themselves. Yet this story is not about winners and losers, good and bad. It is about how Jesus lifts up and tears down in order to set us all free. Jesus’ ministry is all about lifting up the lowly and tearing down the proud. Even before Jesus was born. his mother Mary sang in her Magnificat that this is what Jesus would do. Yet the lifting up and tearing down is not to make winners and losers, to reward the good and punish the bad. Jesus lifts up and tears down to free us all from everything that binds us, everything that prevents us from seeing clearly.

The leader of the synagogue needed freeing and healing as much as the bent-over woman. The problem was not that he was trying to keep the law. Christians have often used this story to say Jews are too legalistic, they got it wrong and now we’ve got it right. That isn’t what is going on here. The problem isn’t that he wanted to protect the Sabbath. Sabbath allows all of creation to rest, to experience freedom from the demands of work.

Rather, the problem is that he was unable to see that this woman desperately needed the rest and freedom that Sabbath offers. He was bound by judgment and righteous indignation which prevented him from rejoicing when Jesus set the woman free. Like her, his vision was narrowed by his condition. He was unable to see the woman in front of him as a ‘daughter of Abraham’, a sister in faith. He needed to be taken down a notch so that his gaze could be turned to his neighbors around him. He needed the obstacles that got in his way torn down. For him, that day, healing required a tearing down.

At times each of us needs to be lifted up; at times each of us needs to be humbled. In a world that trains us to judge good and bad and to look for winners and losers, we all need healing. We all need our perspective changed so that we will see one another not as good or bad but as beloved children of God. We need the obstacles to our sight named and identified so that we all can be set free. In our time, an obstacle that is blinding and binding most of us is our white privilege. White privilege is the invisible system conferring dominance on whites. I encourage you to look up White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack for a list of 46 simple examples of white privilege. (White Privilege:Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack) Those of us who are white are not bad people because we have white privilege. But we harm others when we refuse to see and acknowledge the privilege we carry and the ways it gives us power over people of color. We harm others when we do not use the power we have in order to help lift them up.

We need to be healed. We need to be set free. We need our perspective broadened for the sake of all God’s children. This is what God does for us in worship. In worship we are convicted and forgiven. We are humbled and lifted up. Then God sends us out into the world into difficult conversations, into situations that will make us uncomfortable, into opportunities to develop mutual relationships with people of all colors.

God is at work in all of this to humble us, to lift us up, to heal us and set us free.

Let’s take a moment to pray.





Sermon for August 14, 2016 – “More By Faith …”

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 14, 2016

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

Decorah, Iowa

Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

click here to read scripture passages for the day


“More By Faith …”

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

This Sunday our second reading from the book of Hebrews again has a lot to say about faith. Last Sunday the reading from Hebrews provided a good definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”

  • Faith is both assurance and conviction.
  • Faith provides assurance and comfort in the storms of life.
  • Faith is the conviction that, even when things look bleak, God is at work and calls us to join that work, to get out and respond to the storms.

Last Sunday we heard about how Abraham and Sarah lived by faith. They were promised a future with hope and yet they needed to be assured of God’s promises again and again. They learned to trust these promises by living with conviction, acting as if they were true. We heard Sarah and Abraham’s story told with the repeated refrain, by faith … By faith they obeyed, by faith they lived in tents, by faith they received a son …


This week in the Hebrews reading we hear more about faith and those who lived by faith. Hebrews tells of a great cloud of witnesses, faithful people who provide encouragement for us to run our own races with perseverance. What is striking about these people’s stories is that they include a mix of triumph and suffering.

Some who lived by faith experienced victories: they conquered enemies, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, won strength out of weakness. But others who lived by faith experienced great suffering: public mocking, imprisonment, beating, stoning, homelessness, violence, and death. With this mix we see that our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness. Faithful people suffer; faithful people experience triumphs.


A life of faith is just like any life – full of sorrow and joy, pain and healing. What makes a life of faith different is not our circumstances. What makes it different are the promises of God. The promises of God assure us that we are held in God now and forever, that God is always with us, that we have a future with hope no matter our current circumstances. With these promises we can live and act with faith in the present moment.

Hebrews offers us this message through extreme examples of people living by faith through triumph and suffering. What Hebrews doesn’t include are examples of ordinary people living by faith through more normal ups and downs. We need those stories too.


Last week I shared some general examples from the history and life of this congregation and asked you to share about particular people you know who live by faith. Just about every example I heard was about a Good Shepherd person – something I thought was so fitting because you all are examples of faith to me. I can’t name you all, but I want to lift up some of the names and stories I’ve heard this week and noticed in this past year. As members and guests of Good Shepherd, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and we need to hear these stories to help us hold on to and act on the promises of God. These folks have given permission to use their names.


By faith, Kathryn Thompson and Sara Hanssen left family and moved to Decorah. Almost a year ago they took a chance and came to Good Shepherd one Sunday morning. Now they are an integral part of this congregation and the Kids Lunch Club initiative that has fed hungry kids this summer. They, and every one of you who has been a guest at some point, took a risk by stepping outside their comfort zone to come to worship here.

Thank you; you have so richly blessed this congregation. By faith, you have all made it here today. Whether you trusted that something would feed you or that someone else needed you here, you acted on faith. I trust God will feed you in some way.


By faith, Tanya and Faust Gertz discerned God’s call for their family and are following it even though it means leaving their beloved Decorah and their friends and church community. By faith, so many of you have made similar moves to follow God’s calls for your lives.


By faith, you also live out the daily grind that comes with all of our calls from God. You choose to respond to a difficult person with kindness, you take time to help your child even though you’re tired, you make a nice meal even when your spouse or family could get by with sandwiches again. At times the daily tasks can feel oppressive and overwhelming, but we can approach them with hope and even joy because God is present in them.


By faith, Richard and Millie Dinger, charter members of Good Shepherd who now live at Aase Haugen, have been married for 75 years. By faith, you tend to your own marriages and relationships. By faith, you seek healing and you care for one another when marriages and relationships are broken.


By faith, Jutta Anderson raised her adopted sons Lars and Niels after her first husband died when the children were just 7 and 4, when she was just 38 and had no relatives on this continent. She followed God’s calls for her and her family. By faith, so many of you live with hope and trust after the death of a loved one, even as you grieve so deeply.


By faith, Elizabeth and Jimmy are bringing Henry to the waters of baptism today, trusting that God’s promises are for him. By faith, you as parents and grandparents have entrusted your children to God and you cling to the promise that they are held in God as they live and when they die, whether they succeed or fail, are close or far away.


By faith, last fall David Lester and Amalia Vagts shared how they are living differently with money. They are seeking to be intentional about what they spend and how much they give away. They figured out the percentage of their income that they give away and set a goal of reaching 10%. By faith so many of you live simply and give freely, trusting in God’s abundance and acting on God’s call to care for all of God’s creation.


By faith, Marion Hanson founded Mary’s circle and the Prayer Shawl Ministry which has deepened the prayer life of this congregation.


By faith, Judy MIkkelsen is facing cancer with a sense of peace and trust in God’s care for her. By faith, so many of you approach health challenges and other struggles with faith – faith that wrestles, questions, prays, accepts and endures.


By faith, Marilyn Anderson taught English as a second language to the southeast Asian refugees this congregation helped resettle. By faith, this congregation continues to care for immigrants and refugees through the Path to Citizenship program, by supplying housewares for recent refugees in Postville, by learning about our Muslim neighbors.


I could go on and on. All of these people, all of you, have experienced sorrow and joy as you live by faith.

Faith is not dependent on the circumstances of life but on the promises of God. God’s promise is that we all have a future with hope. That is both reassuring and a call to help others have hope. How is God calling each of us to live by faith in the week ahead? Where is God calling us now as a congregation?

  • To join the sacred conversation about race that will be happening in Decorah?
  • To get to know Muslim neighbors and neighbors of color so that we can help shape a future with

hope for our community and our nation?

  • To draw on our history of resettling refugees in order to help refugees in Postville, now?
  • To expand the Kids’ Lunch Club?
  • To deepen our capacity for prayer?
  • To invite others to be part of this community?


We can start with the August challenge in the bulletin. Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race set before us. Let’s take a moment to give thanks for these witnesses and to pray for our future.


Sermon for August 7, 2016 – “By Faith”

Sermon For Sunday, August 7, 2016 – “By Faith”

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 7, 2016
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

click here to see scriptures for today

“ By Faith”

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

The church talks a lot about faith, but what is faith? In our second lesson today, the author of the book of Hebrews gives a good definition: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is both assurance and conviction.

Faith is assurance – it provides comfort and shelter amidst the storms of life.

  • If you were in town on Thursday night during the terrible storm you know the importance of assurance, of comfort and shelter.
  • Faith is like whatever gave you comfort that night – the protection of the basement, the flashlight beam, the presence of your loved ones or the knowledge that they were safe, the dog you held tight.
  • Faith is what we cling to through all the turmoil of this world.

But faith isn’t just assurance. Faith is also conviction – conviction that sends us out of the basement and into the street to get to work cleaning up, to check on and help our neighbor. Faith is the conviction that, even when things look bleak, God is at work and calls us to join that work.

Faith is holding fast to God’s promises and moving forward with conviction. God’s promises are that God has claimed us and will not let us go. No matter what happens we belong to God, we are held in God in life and death, now and forever. We belong to God and the future belongs to God. The God who raised Jesus from the dead will not stop bringing life out of death, working peace and well-being for all, making all things new. One day, God will make a home among us and mourning and crying and death will be no more. We have a future with hope. These promises are very reassuring. They are also a call, a call to move forward with conviction to follow as God leads us in working for the fulfillment of these promises. And if we’re struggling to feel conviction, the best way to grow in it is to act as if these promises are true. When we put our treasure – our time, energy, resources and talent – toward living out these promises, then our hearts will follow as Jesus says in our Gospel reading today. We’ll be more able to trust them.

We get a picture of what this looks like in the stories of Sarai and Abram who were given new names, Sarah and Abraham. We heard parts of their story in our first and second lessons today. Abraham and Sarah were promised a future with hope. They were promised children as numerous as the stars in the sky and a homeland that God would give to them. God gave them these promises and called them to act on them, to act with conviction. They were told to leave their homes and follow God, trusting that God would keep God’s promises and give them a future with hope.

  • Yet years and years passed and Sarah and Abraham had no children.
  • They were wanderers and foreigners, strangers in a strange land.
  • They doubted God’s promise.
  • They took matters into own their hands by trying to get a child through Sarah’s slave Hagar.

They struggled mightily. Still God continued to assure them that they would have children, they would have a home.

  • So even with all their doubts and struggles, Sarah and Abraham held on to these assurances and continued to move forward.
  • They continued to follow, continued to live in tents trusting that God was leading them to into a future with hope.
  • They did not get to live in the homeland God had promised, but they were given a son even when they were very old.

We hear Sarah and Abraham’s story in our second lesson from Hebrews told with the repeated refrain, “by faith…” By faith they obeyed, by faith they lived in tents, by faith they received the gift of a son, by faith…

Next week, as we continue in the book of Hebrews, we’ll hear more stories told with this same refrain, “by faith…” We need to hear these stories of faith to encourage us to hold fast to God’s promise and move into God’s future. These stories are found in scripture but they are also found all around us. By faith, the founding members of Good Shepherd started a new congregation on the west side of Decorah. They, including some of you here today, trusted God’s promises and followed God into the future. By faith, this congregation helped to resettle 350 southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam war. You trusted in God’s care for all people and acted to make that care known. By faith, this congregation became a Reconciling in Christ congregation long before any other non-student congregation in our synod did so. Recently we designated all-gender bathrooms and the Council added the words ‘queer identifying’ to our welcome statement. We trust God’s welcome for all people and act to make that welcome known.

By faith, we are assured of God’s abundance intended for all people, and so we give our time and our money through Lutheran Disaster Response, ELCA World Hunger Appeal, the community meal, the Kids’ Lunch Club and in so many other ways. By faith, you care for one another, you send cards and flowers when times are difficult, you visit, you check in after storms to see how you can help. By faith, my grandmother raised my father alone for ten years after she was widowed while pregnant with him. She also had no parental support because she had been orphaned at age thirteen; but by faith, she lived with gratitude and joy. By faith, she and my aunts and uncles, and my sister and I cared for my dad after my mom died as he was dying of cancer.

By faith, we as the ELCA are having difficult conversations about racism and white privilege as we seek to live out our faith in God’s care for all people and our conviction that all people are, and need to be, treated as God’s beloved children.

The author of Hebrews writes that all of these who lived by faith also died with faith without having fully received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. We too may die without ever seeing the culmination of the future, without seeing a world where peace prevails and justice reigns and death is no more. But even now, as Hebrews says, we see these things from a distance and we greet them with joy. By faith, we seek the homeland that awaits us on that day when God makes God’s home among us mortals and every tear will finally be wiped from our eyes. By faith, we look forward to that day even as we continue to live this day with hope and conviction.

Next week, as we read from Hebrews, we will hear the names of others who lived by faith, among then Rahab, Gideon, David and Samuel. Whose names would you add to this list? Who have you witnessed living by faith in your life? In your family? In this congregation? I invite you to think about that today over coffee, during brunch, and this week with your families, with your neighbors. And then, take just a moment to record those names and how they lived by faith. I’ve given you some examples in this sermon. But now I want to hear from you. So today, on your way out, please take a sheet of paper to record your responses. You can also email them to me or send them to me on Facebook. Who knows, these stories might make it into the sermon next week.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on and give thanks for those in our lives who are examples of living by faith.