Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2021 – Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe, guest preacher

 Gospel – Mark 10:35-45

Good morning. I’m glad to be with you this morning to give Pastor Amy a break. She performed  a wedding in Dubuque yesterday. I know she will be back for Amalia’s ordination. My wife  Kimberly and I moved to Decorah two years ago. We moved from Harmony, Minnesota, where I  served a church for five years. I’ve been retired one year but have been doing a lot of supply  preaching in area churches. We will be joining Good Shepherd next week along with other new  members. We love this church, its mission and its leadership, and we feel a warm welcome  here. And, when I learned that my Uncle and Aunt were charter members back in 1958, I knew  that this would be our new church home. 

When people join a church, they often do so with an affirmation of baptism. We say “yes” to  the covenant God made with us when we were baptized. There are five things that characterize  that baptismal covenant, five things we do as members of Christ’s church. 

  • To live among God’s faithful people
  • To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper
  • To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
  • To serve all people, following the example of Jesus
  • And to strive for justice and peace in all the earth

I want to specifically focus on the fourth statement-to serve all people, following the example  of Jesus. It fits well with our Gospel text where Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be  served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus came to be a servant. And  calls us to be servants too, as we follow him. 

Let’s explore the context of Jesus’ words. In Mark’s Gospel, this is now the third time that Jesus  has told his disciples that he will die in Jerusalem. The growing popularity of his movement was  seen as a threat to the ruling authorities and a challenge to their power. They were intent on  getting rid of him. But each time Jesus told his disciples about his impending death, they just  didn’t get it. In our Gospel reading today, James and John are oblivious to Jesus’ words. They  came to Jesus with a request. Jesus, when you gain power in the new kingdom God is bringing  about, may we sit at your right and left hand? May we have positions of power and authority? I  imagine that in the quiet conversations between the two of them, they had visions of  great- ness, wealth and power. Once again, Jesus had to explain how this is not the way it works  in God’s coming reign. The world values greatness, wealth and power. Plenty of tyrants and  dictators promise to make their countries great by seducing people with promises of power and  wealth. But Jesus said that this is not how God works in the world. “Whoever wishes to  become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you  must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his  life a ransom for many.” Jesus identifies greatness with humble service and using God’s  blessings to help others, especially the hurting and the poor.

How many of you like to be servants? How many of you would rather have people serve you?  We grow up in homes with parents who basically serve us and take care of our needs. As  children, we get used to the idea of someone serving us- our parents. But one thing parents  need to teach their children is the importance of serving others. Somehow in the process of  growing up we need to learn that the world does not revolve around us. We need to learn  compassion and empathy for others. We need to become sensitive to others’ needs and be  motivated to help them. How does that happen?

We all know about the need to do service for others. Schools and churches are including service  hours into their programs. They know the benefit of this kind of learning outside the classroom.  But when parents and children serve together, something really special can happen.

Let me give you an example. The first year Gary went on a Hunger Walk, his mother pulled him  in his red wagon. He was only three, after all. The next year, he walked some and rode in his  wagon part of the way. If asked, he would tell you that he was walking so people wouldn’t be  hungry. When he was five, Gary and his mother wrote to family members and special friends,  asking them to pledge for their walk. Gary signed the letter too. When he was ten, Gary knew more about hunger in the world, and he was concerned about children around the world who  go to bed hungry. He never failed to pray for hungry people in his bedtime prayers. Gary hoped that by the time he is a parent, there won’t have to be Hunger Walks.

Here is the point: When service and faith are integrated in an event where parents and children  are serving together, children learn what the parents are role modeling. That can have huge  benefits for a family. When you and your family serve you may see others with much greater  problems than yours. It gives you a new appreciation for what you have. But it also gives you a  different perspective on the problems in your family. Your problems may not seem so bad in  comparison. Serving can also help grow a sense of compassion and empathy toward others, and  that will impact how siblings treat each other. It decreases our selfishness and the notion that  life is all about me and my desires. Serving as a family allows parents to model positive  character traits like compassion and selflessness. Serving together helps children, especially  teenagers, recognize they are not the center of the universe. Serving as a family is associated  with higher rates of education, lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse, reduced misbehavior,  and enhanced family unity. Serving as a family is the perfect opportunity to spend quality time  together while making a difference in your community and the world.

Former President Jimmy Carter’s house building work with Habitat for Humanity is well-known.  Habitat for Humanity founder, Millard Fuller, once visited a Habitat house, which Carter had  personally helped to build. As he drove up to the house, he spoke with a little boy, six years old  or so, who was playing in the front yard. Fuller said to the boy, “You have a pretty house.” After  a few more moments’ conversation, he asked the boy, “I want to ask you a question. Who built  your house?” Millard thought that the boy would say, “Jimmy Carter.” Instead, he replied,  “Jesus.” When we work humbly on behalf of those who are poor and needy, we truly are  work- ing with the hands of Jesus himself. “God’s work, our hands.”

When you hear leaders promising to make us great, keep these words of Jesus in mind.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. And whoever wishes to  be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to  serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” How do we measure greatness? According to  Jesus, we measure greatness by humble service to those in need. We serve because Jesus has  first served us. Through his death and resurrection, he has served us completely by revealing  the love and forgiveness of God for us and for all people.

Sermon for Sunday, October 10, 2021 – “Help for Our Dis-ease”

Twentieth 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.

A man comes to Jesus and says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When we hear that phrase “eternal life”, we’re conditioned to think about an afterlife, about a place called heaven complete with St. Peter and the pearly gates. We take this story to be an answer to the question, who’s gonna get to pass through those pearly gates? It seems the rich guy fails the entrance exam.

So, what does that mean for us?

Do we have to give everything away, everything we own, to pass the test? Very few people in his- tory have actually done that. Have they all failed heaven’s entrance exam? Probably not. So, maybe this was just this guys’ specific test, and it doesn’t apply to us? Or maybe Jesus doesn’t really mean sell everything, just make sure to be generous? Or maybe this story is just showing us that we really need Jesus to get into heaven? Except this story isn’t really about getting past those pearly gates. It isn’t about somewhere we’ll go after we die. It is about this rich man’s need for healing, our own need for healing, and Jesus’ compassionate response.

Throughout the gospels when Jesus talks about eternal life, he’s talking about experiencing abundant life in relationship with God now and forever. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about life on earth being as God intends it. God intends for us to know peace, well-being and harmony with each other and God. When that happens, we experience the fullness of life that God longs for us to know, always.

In our story today, the rich man is not experiencing that well-being. He comes to Jesus and kneels before him. He takes the posture used by people asking Jesus for healing – they kneel and plead for the thing that they are missing. It seems this rich man has a sense of dis-ease with his life. Some- thing is missing. He longs to know how he can be healed, how he can experience full life with God. Yet even as he asks Jesus for help, he seems to have a sense that he can somehow earn or achieve his way into healing and God’s abundance. “Good teacher”, he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.”Jesus looks at this man with compassion and sees his problem. It is his wealth. His riches are causing his dis-ease. His wealth is likely the reason he thinks there’s something he can do to make things better.

The same can be said for us. We who live in the United States are among the wealthiest people to ever live upon this earth. We are all shaped by a culture that puts so much trust in wealth, profits, and money. And life in such a culture is full of disease and dis-ease as has become increasingly evident to us during the pandemic. There’s such a massive gap between the haves and the have- nots; profits are prioritized over people and communities; we are doing so much harm to the planet.

We long for life to be different. We long to experience abundant life together with others, so we are now asking questions like the rich man asked of Jesus:

What must we do to promote peace, to live well upon this earth, to experience happiness and help children thrive here?

How can we be less isolated from one another?

What can we each do about inequity, about climate change?

How can we live more simply and still have enough to provide for children and loved ones?

What is a healthy relationship with money, one that doesn’t involve having to spend so much time thinking about it and worrying about it?

How do we shape our lives differently in this consumer culture without feeling like it all depends upon us to figure it out?

What does it look like to trust God more with our money, with our lives?

Jesus sees the dis-ease and the questions in the rich man and in us and responds with such com- passion. Jesus gives the rich man the answer that would bring him healing. Let go of what you have and give it to those in need. Let go of the illusion that you are master of your own destiny. Let go of living for yourself alone. Let go of trying to acquire abundant life on your own. Happiness, joy, and well-being will come as you give your money away and discover your connection to those who are poor, to all God’s people.

There is great wisdom for each of us here as well. We don’t know what Jesus would tell each of us individually if we were to kneel before him seeking help for our own dis-ease and our own issues with money. Would he tell us to sell everything we have and give everything away? Maybe. Jesus did call some people to leave everything, including possessions and family, to follow him. Yet he also relied on the hospitality and wealth of many people.

Some are called to give away everything. The rest of us are called, in scripture, to give away at least 10% of what we’ve first been given. This practice, called tithing, helps others. It also helps us so much. As we give, we find we can trust God to provide. As we give, we experience much more connection with other people. Whether or not we are called to give away all our possessions, we are called to let go of the illusion that we can do, earn, achieve, or buy our way to abundant life. We are all called to let go of living isolated from God and others. We are called to give freely.

This way of life may feel overwhelming, even impossible, but with God all things are possible. And, this call from God is not a test that we pass or fail. It is a compassionate response to the dis-ease that comes from wealth. God also gives us what we need to live differently with money so that we might more fully experience God’s abundance.

God draws us into community in the body of Christ. Together we can have honest conversations about wealth, inequity and climate issues. God draws us into worship where we are fed and nourished and experience God’s goodness. Here we get to delight in the true riches that God provides: people to love, words of challenge and hope, music that heals, the promises of God. Here we are assured of God’s presence with us in all our questions and dis-ease. Here God pours out upon us mercy, forgiveness, and love. God also showers us with beauty and delight each day through bird song, fall leaves, gentle rains, sunsets, loved ones.

We have all that we need.
We can trust, receive, let go, and give freely of what we have first been given.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.



Racial Justice Statement Listening Sessions

Racial Justice Statement Listening Sessions
The draft racial justice statement has been shared with the Good Shepherd email list. It is also available as a hard copy in one of the boxes outside the office. 
Please plan to join in one of the two upcoming sessions on October 12 at 7:00 pm via Zoom (click here to join the Zoom listening session) and October 30 at 11:00 am in person at Good Shepherd to share feedback on the draft racial justice statement. 

Sermon for Sunday, October 3, 2021 – “It Is Good!”

Nineteenth 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.

Before we look at Jesus’ response to a trick question about divorce practices in the ancient world, I want to consider the story from Genesis 2 that we heard earlier. It’s such a beautiful story that has so often been misinterpreted. Exploring this story can help us to rejoice in all healthy relationships and to support those experiencing pain from relationships.

The story begins with God saying, “It is not good.” That’s a striking phrase, especially after Genesis 1. All throughout Genesis 1, in beautiful poetry, God speaks creation into being, looks at it all, and repeatedly declares, “It is good.” And after God has created human beings in the image of God, God looks at everything and says, “It is very good.”

Yet right after that, the creation story in Genesis 2 begins with God saying, “It is not good.” God says, “It is not good for this human I’ve created to be alone.” Often, we hear this phrase translated as,“It is not good for man to be alone.” That’s led to all sorts of gender stereotypes of men as bum- bling idiots, incapable of dealing with life without good women by their sides. But the Hebrew word used here isn’t the gender specific word for man. Instead, it is the word ‘Adam’ which comes from the Hebrew word ‘Adamah’, for ground or earth. This word has the sense not of a man but of the being formed from the earth. A better translation is earthling or human.

God isn’t saying, wow if I don’t help this guy out by giving him a little wife, things are going to go downhill fast. No, God is saying it isn’t good for humans to be alone. We are all created for relation- ships. So, God creates a second human to be a helper and partner to the ‘Adam’. Once this other human is created, then the two humans are named – in the Hebrew as man ish and the other as woman ishah. The names show the interconnectedness of these beings; they are cut from the same cloth, one and the same. That is, men are not from Mars and women from Venus. Our genders shouldn’t define us or separate us. We are all earthlings, formed from the earth and interconnected. We are all made in the image of God. And it is good for us to be in relationships as helpers and partners to one another.

The story continues with a beautiful example of one kind of relationship: a man and a woman marrying, holding on to each other, and forming a new family. Yet this is not the only way of being in relationship that is celebrated in scripture. We see examples of friends, parents, children, in- laws, congregation members being helpers and partners. Also, the type of martial relationship de- scribed in Genesis 2 isn’t good in and of itself. Any relationship that does not honor the image of God in the other, any relationship that abuses, diminishes, or excludes others is not good. The wit- ness of scripture is that God rejoices to see health, well-being, and dignity in any human relation- ship. When God sees these qualities, I believe God still smiles at what God has made and says, “It is good.”

When I picture relationships of health, well-being, and dignity, I picture my friends Johanna and Joanne and their group of five LGBTQ couples. I got to witness Johanna and Joanne’s love from an early age because they moved next door to my family when I was three. They welcomed us into their lives and into their group of friends. We shared meals, birthdays, and holidays together. This group of people had a beautiful community. They honored each other’s partnerships and support- ed each other like family. If anyone needed help, there was always someone available. The partnerships among these couples have withstood the test of time. It is good to behold this love.

It is also good to behold a father helping his child in worship here at Good Shepherd; to behold friends working on Altar Guild or putting together school kits; to see people of different genera- tions connecting at coffee hour. It is good. God rejoices in all these kinds of healthy relationships.

The witness of scripture is also that when God sees pain, loneliness, abuse, and oppression, God still says, “it is not good.” I think this is what Jesus is naming when he answers the question about the legality of divorce. Jesus chooses not to get into a debate about the law. Instead, he points to the underlying reason the law is given – to protect vulnerable women and children. In Jesus’ day, men could move from one wife to the next with no consequence to the man and extreme consequences for the woman. These are the kinds of things that God sees and says, “This is not good.”

Later in talking with his disciples, Jesus also names the painful reality that divorce does have negative effects for both spouses. The pain of divorce impacts the partners, their children, their families, and future marriages. God sees this pain and knows that it is not good for people to ex- perience and cause this pain to one another.

But God doesn’t just see the pain and brokenness. God also works to make things better. The wit- ness of scripture is that when God sees that things are not good, God works to do something about them. In Genesis 2, when he sees that it is not good for the human to be alone, God creates another human as a helper partner. When our relationships are not good, God sees the pain and does something to make things better.

Sometimes this looks like divorce and a new marriage. In this congregation, there are so many examples of people who have been able to leave unhealthy relationships and have remarried into healthy, happy, relationships of well-being and dignity. These are beautiful to behold. They are the kinds of relationships God smiles upon and rejoices in. It is good.

God also works to make things better through a wide range of relationships, not just remarriage. God works to bring us into relationships of health and dignity in congregations, in families, in community. God has created us for relationships. When our relationships are healthy, God rejoices. When they are broken, painful, or ended, God knows this is not good for us. And God works to make things better.

Most of all, God comes to us in Christ Jesus who is present today in his body and blood and the body of Christ. Jesus comes to be in relationship with us, to draw us into a life-giving relationship with God. In this relationship, we experience God’s loving gaze. We hear God’s desire for us to be in healthy relationships. We are given the healing, mercy, love, and forgiveness so that we can extend  all that to one another.

And it is good.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

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.