Sermon for Sunday, February 23, 2020 – “Arise, Do Not Be Afraid”

Last Sunday after Epiphany – Transfiguration of Our Lord
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passage for the day.

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

“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Those words from our second reading today captured my imagination this week.

We would do well to be attentive indeed. The author of the reading is saying that we would do well to be attentive to the prophetic message about Jesus. Yet, it struck me that we would do well just to be generally more attentive.

We would do well to be attentive to the colors of our loved ones’ eyes, to the sun sparkling on snow, to the song of chickadees, to the needs of those who face hunger, homelessness and persecution. In paying attention to these things, we pay attention to God. For God’s eye is on the sparrow and God is close to the brokenhearted. An attentive awareness of God’s presence is like a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.

We would be well to be attentive. Yet, that’s so hard for us. Often, we can’t pay attention because we’ve got so much to do and we’re getting pulled in too many directions. The tasks run through our brains in a continual anxiety producing loop making it hard to notice the sunset. Other times, our brains just shut down due to information overload.

Some days we want to cover our faces and stop up our ears because things feel so fearful, so heart- breaking that we can’t bear to take it all in. Other days we really want to give the world our full attention, but find ourselves in a fog of sorrow, anger or memory loss.

And then there are times when we’re just mindlessly scrolling through social media or email – sometimes shopping, sometimes reading news – while a show plays in the background, while we pretend to be listening to someone else. This is such a common phenomenon there’s even a name for it – continuous partial attention. Sometimes it’s caused by boredom, sometimes by a fear of missing out; but either way we find ourselves stuck and drained of life.

We would do well to be attentive, but that’s not an easy thing to do. God knows that. So, God goes to great lengths to get our attention, to get through to us. God comes to us in Jesus so that we might know that God loves us and pays attention to us so that we might join God in attending to the beau- ty and the needs of the world. In Jesus, God has gone to great lengths to get through to us. Yet, we still often miss what God is doing in Jesus.

In our Gospel story today, Peter, James and John aren’t really getting it either. They can’t see that Jesus is God with them. They can’t take it all in. So, Jesus takes them up on a mountain where his glory is revealed. He is transfigured before them, his face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white. This should get through to them, but rather than standing in awe and taking it all in, Peter decides he should do something, even if it’s wrong. He seems to take the approach that if things don’t make sense, it’s better just to keep busy so you don’t really have to deal with it all.

Then God speaks out of a cloud and declares, “This is my son, listen to him!” That should get their attention. Except, it frightens them so much that they fall to the ground, overcome by fear – not exactly the best posture for active listening. I suppose that’s a tension God always has to navigate – how to get through to us without completely overwhelming us.

Finally, Jesus comes to the disciples, touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” “Get up,” he says, yet what he’s saying is not just get off the ground. The Greek verb here is the same word the angel uses to tell the women at the empty tomb that Jesus has been resurrected, “He has been raised!” the angel says. So, what Jesus actually says to the disciples on the mountain is more like, “arise”, “be raised up”, or even “be resurrected.” When the disciples are overwhelmed by God’s voice, when they are cowering on the ground in fear, Jesus touches them and resurrects them.

He raises them into new life, new awareness, new attentive participation in what God is doing in the world. He assures them they do not need to be afraid, he is with them.

These words – “arise” and “do not be afraid”- are repeated throughout scripture to God’s people who are lost, inattentive, overwhelmed and fearful. They were spoken to the disciples long ago and they are spoken now today to us. God speaks to us through holy scripture in a manner that’s a little less scary than a voice from a cloud to say, “Do not be afraid.”

And, Jesus comes to us in holy communion. As we meet him in his body and blood, he touches us and resurrects us. He raises us up from our fears, anxieties, inattentiveness – from all that drains away our life and keeps us stuck. He empowers us to attend to the needs and the beauty of this world.

“Arise, do not be afraid.” We would do well to be attentive to this message. It is a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.

“Arise, do not be afraid.” Jesus is here to help us receive that message.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

This Week at Good Shepherd, February 24 – March 1, 2020

Tuesday, February 25
7:00 p.m. – CLA Circle – Gail Judisch hosts

Wednesday, February 26
6:00 P.M. – Choir rehearsal
7:00 p.m. – Ash Wednesday Service
8:00 p.m. – Band rehearsal

Thursday, February 27
NO Adult Bible Study

Sunday, March 1 – Eighth Sunday after Epiphany
8:45 a.m. – Handbell practice
9:30 a.m. – Worship with Holy Communion – 11 a.m. Broadcast
10:30 a.m. – Fellowship Hour
10:50 a.m. – Sunday School/Youth Forum
11:00 a.m. – Adult Forum – Collaborative Learning Site Partnership with Luther College

Dead Sea Scrolls – Learn About Them! – Sunday, February 23

Join us at 11:00 a.m., Sunday, February 23 – ADULT FORUM – “An Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls” – Member Hayley Jackson, Luther College Archivist, will discuss the Dead Sea Scrolls – what they are, where they were found, who created them, and compare them to manuscripts of other early Biblical texts.

Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2020 – “Living As the Beloved Community”

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
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.

Author Phillip Yancey tells about meeting a woman who was in desperate straits. She was home- less, sick, and unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. She’d turned to prostitution to survive. He writes, “I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried, ‘Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’”[1]

I think of that woman when I hear our Gospel reading for today. I think about everyone who has experienced the pain of divorce and then more pain when they’ve been judged and excluded by the church. I think about all of us who feel shame about our choices and thoughts and the brokenness in our lives.

Really Jesus? I want to say. We already feel terrible about ourselves, this just makes things worse.

Yet, then I remember what Jesus was all about in this passage – this passage that’s part of his larger Sermon on the Mount that we’ve been hearing all month. Minister and author, Debie Thomas, has reminded me what Jesus is doing in his sermon and her insights have really helped me to understand this passage.[2]

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t giving warnings about morality to a bunch of individuals.

That’s often how we hear it as 21st Century Americans who’ve been shaped to approach every- thing in an individualistic way. If we imagine that Jesus is lecturing individuals about morality, we hear his words as just harsh admonitions to shape up and try to get everyone else out there to shape up, too.

Yet, Jesus is doing something else in his Sermon on the Mount. He’s speaking to the whole group of his disciples, including us, and calling forth a new community.

Jesus is calling forth a community that will know we are blessed by God through all the trials of life, as we heard in the first part of his sermon, the beatitudes; a community that will know we have been blessed by God to be a blessing to the world; that will know we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world even when we don’t feel like it, as we heard last week.

This week it becomes clear that Jesus is calling forth “a community meant to initiate a radical way of doing life on the earth, a community Jesus trusts will follow in his footsteps, and [bring] divine love to a world hungry for hope and healing.”[3]

In his instructions that we hear today, Jesus seeks to shape this community so that we can most fully experience God’s blessing of life and well-being, and most fully bless the world.

He instructs all of us disciples to take relationships with one another very seriously; to “go beyond the bare minimum of civility and morality, and live together with the deepest respect, integrity, and love.”[4]

Jesus says it isn’t enough to just avoid murdering. We should practice kindness and speak well of each other. We shouldn’t let anger consume us. We should seek reconciliation.

It isn’t enough to just avoid adultery. Instead, we’re called to honor the dignity of all people so that we don’t objectify others and view them as ways to satisfy our physical desires. And as Thomas points out, we’re called to “help others succeed in marriages and relational commitments, instead of making those vows even harder to fulfill.” We’re called to “encourage each other in holy living, not holy as in stiff, boring, lifeless, and prudish, but holy as in whole, abundant, faithful, and life- giving.”[5]

And even when marital relationships come to an end, as they sometimes must, Jesus says we shouldn’t treat people as disposable – that we should be concerned for the welfare of the most vulnerable. This was especially true in Jesus’ day when women were considered the property of their husbands and men could easily dispose of their wives with a simple note of divorce. This left women in desperate straits. Jesus wants something different. “In the beloved community Jesus is shaping, he says we each have a responsibility to uphold each other’s dignity as [siblings] in Christ — even when our relationships as spouses or partners come to an end.”[6]

Finally, Jesus calls us to keep our promises and not deceive, connive or manipulate each other so that no one needs to say “I swear” if they want to be trusted. He calls us to be mindful that everything we say is spoken in the presence of God and to honor one another by speaking honestly.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not about making people feel worse. It is about God’s care for us and this hurting world. God wants the woman who came to Philip Yancey to know how much she is loved and valued. God wants the beloved community to live in ways that allow for her dignity to be honored, for the dignity of all people to be honored.

God’s abiding care for us is why God gives us commandments, why Jesus intensifies them in his sermon. As we heard in the reading from Deuteronomy, God’s commandments are given so that we can live well together and be a blessing to the world.

But what happens when we don’t live out God’s commandments? Does God condemn us to hell?

The references to hell in Jesus’ sermon seem more descriptive than prescriptive. If we live with anger, insulting others and calling them fools, we create hell on earth. If we let lust control us, we feed a fire that can become all-consuming. If we ignore the dignity of others, we experience the hell of being cut off from community.

When we don’t live out God’s commandments, it does make God unhappy, but not because God is angry, wrathful and intent on punishing. Rather, God is unhappy because God loves us and wants our lives and relationships to be whole and well and nourishing.

God also longs for a relationship with us. And God chooses to be in relationship, no matter how often we turn from God’s ways.

In many ways, commandments and Jesus’ interpretation of them can drive us into relationship with God. They can show us how much we fall short of what God intends for us and how much we need to be forgiven, how much we need God’s help. They can shape us into a community that practices reconciliation and humility rather than self-righteousness and judgment. Whenever we’re tempted to think we’re better than someone who murders, someone who has turned to prostitution, Jesus’ words here remind us that we are all in need of forgiveness and mercy. And thanks be, God showers that upon us each week as we gather at the table.

Here we are reminded that we are all beggars in need of the bread of life. Here that bread is given freely so that we might know we are beloved. Here that bread is given freely to shape us into a community that can bless a world hungry for hope and healing.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

[1] Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997

[2] Thomas, Debie. “Journey with Jesus” blogpost, posted February 9, 2020. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2525

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

This Week at Good Shepherd, February 17-23, 2020

Tuesday, February 18
6:30 p.m. – Council Potluck
7:00 p.m. – Congregation Council Meeting

Wednesday, February 19
1:00 p.m. – Prayer Shawl Ministry – Joyce Epperly hosts
5:00 P.M. – Confirmation Class
7:00 p.m. – Choir rehearsal
8:00 p.m. – Band rehearsal

Thursday, February 20 – March Newsletter Deadline
10:00 a.m. – Bible Study with Pr. Amy
5:00 P.M. – Community Meal at Decorah Lutheran

Sunday, February 23 – Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
9:30 a.m. – Worship with Holy Communion – 11a.m. Broadcast
10:30 a.m. – Fellowship Hour
10:50 a.m. – Sunday School/Youth Forum
11:00 a.m. – Adult Forum – An Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls – Hayley Jackson