Obituary for Former Member, J. Gordon Christianson

The obituary for former Good Shepherd member J. Gordon Christianson (August 12, 1926-February 19, 2021) may be found at the link for the Ranfranz & Vine Funeral Home in Rochester, Minnesota.

Obituary for J. Gordon Christianson

Sermon for Sunday, February 21, 2021 – “Forty Weeks (or More!) for New  Life”

First Sunday in Lent
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 was in the wilderness forty days. Usually that sounds like a long time. This year, I’m hearing that a little differently.

I remember when we first moved worship online last Lent. Our COVID Task Force determined we should follow CDC guidelines and refrain from gathering for eight weeks, for more than forty days, well past Easter. We thought we would need to be online until mid-May. It seemed like an eternity then.

It has now been well over forty weeks since we last gathered in the sanctuary. We’ve been in the wilder- ness a long time. During COVID time, sometimes each week feels like forty days. Which is part of what the number forty means in scripture. It doesn’t necessarily mean a literal forty days. It’s a symbolic number used to indicate a significant period of time.

There wasn’t just a little shower when Noah was in the ark, it rained for forty days and forty nights. The people of Israel didn’t have a short retreat in the wilderness after slavery in Egypt, they wandered there for forty years. Moses didn’t just spend a few peaceful hours on Mount Sinai talking with God. Three different times he spent forty days and forty nights up there. The number forty appears again and again to describe key periods in the Old Testament.

It makes me wonder if Jesus knew he would be in the wilderness for forty days, if he found himself there and thought yeah, I’m going to be here awhile. I’m going to be here long enough for something new to emerge. Because that’s the other meaning of the number forty in scripture. It doesn’t just symbolize a long time. It also represents the time it takes for something new to be born. There’s a strong connection to the forty weeks of full-term human pregnancy here. In the womb of a mother, in the womb of God’s love, the number forty is significant.

Forty days of rain for Noah meant one world was over and God was starting afresh. Forty days brought the end of the old and the start of a new covenant with all creation. For Moses on Mt. Sinai, the periods of forty days and forty nights meant a new relationship between God and the people of Israel. God entered into a covenant with the people through the ten commandments. Forty years of wilderness wandering meant a whole generation of faithless people would pass away and a whole new set of God’s people would enter the promised land. The old would die, and a new generation would be raised up.

Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness mark the biggest turning point of all. After those forty days, Jesus begins his public ministry. He announces the time is fulfilled. God’s kingdom is here. God is doing a whole new thing. Everything that follows – from Jesus’ healing and teaching to the cross and resurrection – shows that God’s realm of mercy and justice is now here, is among us. New life for us all flows out of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.

Big things happen in forty days.

So, for however long we are in this pandemic, I suggest we think of it as a forty-day time. A long time and a significant time, a time in which God will bring about something new. This is what God does. God works in these difficult periods in our lives to birth hope and change, even when we can’t see the new life unfolding. As we think about how we can move through this long, significant time that we are in, it helps to consider Jesus’ forty-day time.

Matthew and Mark tell us more about how Satan tempted Jesus to escape the challenges of the wilderness. Mark leaves more to our imagination. I wonder if Jesus felt the cold deep in his bones as we did when marking Ash Wednesday outside, as the people of Texas have this whole week. I wonder if he long- ed to embrace his mother and his brothers. Did he sit alone with a fire yearning for human company? Did he sing Psalms and get tired of hearing his own voice? I wonder if the hours felt like days and if the landscape of each day felt oppressively similar to the one before. I wonder about the wild beasts. Mark says Jesus was with them. Did they lurk in the shadows always? Did Jesus befriend them somehow? How will we live with the things that make us afraid, that wake us in the night?

I’m also struck that Mark says there were angels in the wilderness tending to Jesus. Author Debie Thomas points out, “Even in the land of shadow and starvation, even in the place where the wild beasts roamed, God’s agents of love and care lingered. This … is a startling and comforting truth — one we can recognize if we open our eyes and take a good look around. Even in the grimmest places, God abides and somehow, without reason or explanation, help comes. Rest comes. Solace comes. Granted, our angels don’t always appear in the forms we prefer, but they come.”[1]

Ultimately, I wonder if the time in the wilderness helped Jesus to know who he was. Did the voice, the voice that had just claimed him as beloved child, echo in his ears? Did time in the wilderness help that promise to sink deep into his bones? Did it help him to know what it meant to be God’s child in this world? Will it do that for us? Thomas says, “Sometimes we, like Jesus, need long stints in the wilderness to learn what it really means to be God’s children. Because the unnerving truth is this: We can be loved and uncomfortable at the same time. We can be loved and vulnerable at the same time … Learning to trust [this] takes time. A long time.”[2] 

Since wilderness time is so important, the season of Lent is intended to give us forty days in the wilder- ness every year. This year’s Lent, we’re already there and it’s starting to feel a bit like forty years. Yet the forty days of this season can help us to reflect more deeply on what we are learning in the COVID wilder- ness. It can help us to identify what God is doing for us and through us. It can assure us that we are not alone in the wilderness. Jesus has gone before us, angels tend to us, God is with us.

Jesus emerges from the wilderness clear in his identity as God’s beloved, able to announce the good news that God’s realm of mercy and justice has come near, able to make that good news known in word and deed. May that same thing happen for us, for the whole church.

[1] Thomas, Debie. (2021, February 14) Beasts and Angels. www.journeywithjesus.net

[2] Ibid.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021 – “Met in the Dust, Marked with the Cross of Christ”

Ash Wednesday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to see scripture passages for the day.

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

On Ash Wednesday we’re told, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’re remind- ed we are fragile, frail, mortal, that we are vulnerable and broken. I’ve wondered if we really need to be reminded of such things this year. The news, the death tolls, the masks and refusals to wear masks are maybe reminders enough. And yet, hearing that we are made of dust isn’t just a message about our mortality and sinfulness. It’s also a liberating word.

We are dust. We can let go of all our pretense, all our futile attempts to spruce ourselves up.

We are so often focused on how we appear to others. Do I look put together? Do I seem woke? How am I coming across in this email message, on this Zoom call? Do I seem like a good person, a good Christian, a good parent, friend, employee? That person has taken up three new hobbies during the pandemic, that guy has done a virtual marathon, she is helping so many people and I’m just binging Netflix and ice cream. We compare and compete and worry about the image we’re projecting.

This wears us out and sucks our souls dry.

On Ash Wednesday, God calls us to stop. Quit trying to cover. Lay down all the striving, the virtue signaling, the performative acts. God calls us to stop focusing on outward appearances, to look within and to remember that we are dust. Remember, our lives do not depend upon our own frail courage, strength and talent, on our ability to tidy things up. Remember, our lives depend upon God – God who breathed life into dust at the beginning.

Dust is fertile ground for God’s work. Dirt is a garden for the Holy One to bring life. The awareness that we are dust is unsettling and humbling. Yet it is also so very grounding and life-giving. We are dust and God does beautiful things with dust.

The cross shows us this. The cross shows us most clearly what God can do with dust. The cross shows us that God has entered into the dust of our lives, God has come to live in a frail, fragile, human body. God has entered into the human realities of sin and death. And God meets us here, in our bodies, in the place we least expect to meet God. God meets us amidst all our shame and guilt and sin to write a new story, to reframe the landscape of our bodies and our lives.

A cross is also placed upon our foreheads at baptism along with the proclamation: Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The cross on our forehead says that every bit of our dust is claimed and loved by God. That cross stays on our dusty bodies forever. We are marked by the promises of God. They stick to us and hold us in hope. Yet we can’t always see this. We don’t always remember that we are marked by the cross of Christ forever. So, in Lent we’re called to turn toward the cross and remember the gift of baptism. Lent is also a time to prepare for baptism if you haven’t been baptized. I’m always available to talk with you about baptism.

Over the next five Wednesday nights in midweek Lenten worship, we’ll be reflecting on what baptism means for daily life, on what it means to be marked with the cross of Christ forever. We’ll focus on this with people preparing for baptism and with Confirmation students preparing to affirm their baptisms.

It’s good for all of us to reflect upon baptism during Lent. Living out our baptismal identities is how we follow in God’s way of justice described in the passage from Isaiah tonight: how we experience God’s promise to satisfy our needs in parched places and make our bones strong; so that our dust shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.

Tonight, as we begin this season of reflection upon baptism you are invited to receive the sign of the cross again and again upon your body using words adapted from the Welcome to Baptism service in our worship book Evangelical Lutheran Worship.[1] The Welcome to Baptism service is used with people who are preparing to be baptized. It’s a good way for us all to begin Lent. Even if we can’t receive dusty ashes on our foreheads, our dusty bodies can still be marked with the cross today.

As we begin, you are invited to stand and prepare to make the sign of the cross again and again on your body. If standing isn’t possible, if you can’t reach all these parts of your body, Christ meets you there still.

Our bodies all move and work in a variety of ways and God’s image is revealed in all of us.

Let’s begin.

Beloved of God,

You have heard the holy and saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Now receive the sign of that tender gospel on your body and your heart. As I speak the words in italics and bold, mark the cross there and/or reflect upon how Christ meets you there.

(mark the sign of the cross on your forehead)

Receive the + cross on your forehead, a sign of God’s fervent love and extravagant mercy for you.

 (mark the sign of the cross throughout your body)

Receive the + cross on your ears, that you may hear the gospel of Christ, the word of life.

Receive the + cross on your eyes, that you may see the light of Christ illuminating your way.

Receive the + cross on your lips, that you may sing the praise of Christ, the joy of the church.

Receive the + cross on your heart, that God may dwell within you by faith.

Receive the + cross on your shoulders, that you may bear the gentle yoke of Christ.

Receive the + cross on your hands, that God’s mercy may be known in your work.

Receive the + cross on your feet, that you may follow in the way of Christ.

Beloved of God,
Remember that you are dust.
Remember what God can do with dust.
God meets you in the dust of your body to bring new life.
You are marked with the cross of Christ.

Amen.

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leaders Desk Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2008), 592.

Sermon for Sunday, February 14, 2021 – “Transfiguration = Metamorphosis”

Transfiguration of Our Lord – Last 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.

We hear a version of this story every year. It’s at once familiar and yet also so very strange and mysterious.

This year, one word in this passage has helped the story to come alive again for me – the amazing word metamorphosis. I know, you didn’t hear that word when I just read the passage but it’s there. The word translated as transfigured – Jesus was transfigured before them – is actually metemorphone as in meta- morphosis.

The way that Mark tells this story, Jesus undergoes metamorphosis, like a tadpole does when becoming a frog, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. This happens right before their very eyes. According to Mark, Jesus isn’t just altered for a time. He doesn’t just look different. Jesus is changed, transformed.

I don’t know what that means for Jesus. I don’t think we are supposed to understand or explain what happened to Jesus. I do think we’re supposed to take notice. I do think we’re supposed to see that God is in the business of metamorphosis, that God is about transfiguration and transformation. We see this everywhere we look in creation. We see complete or partial metamorphosis happen in beetles, butterflies, moths, wasps, dragonflies, grasshoppers, frogs, toads, and salamanders. We see transformation throughout the natural world. 

Bishop Desmond Tutu has written about a transfiguration experience he had in a garden at a very difficult time during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It was during the Feast of Transfiguration, when the church remembers this story of Jesus on the mountain, and the bishop had gone into a garden to pray.

He writes, “It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again, it would be transfigured. As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration–of God’s transformation–in our world. The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again. Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches. Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water. When winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.” He continues, “The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one, and no situation is ‘untransfigurable,’ that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration … “[1]

We see examples of transfiguration, metamorphosis, in both nature and scripture. The Apostle Peter continually gets things wrong, denies Jesus three times, abandons him, and yet is transfigured into the leader of the church. The Apostle Paul is transformed from someone who violently persecutes Christians into a great messenger of the Gospel. And Bishop Tutu says, “As I sat in the priory garden I thought of our desperate political situation in the light of this principle of transfiguration, and from that moment on, it has helped me to see with new eyes. I have witnessed time and again the improbable redemptions that are possible in our world.”[2]

I think this is what we are longing for right now as we look to a post-COVID world. We are longing for not just a return to normal but for transfiguration, metamorphosis, transformation. And this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus points us to the most powerful way that God brings such change in the human world. It points us to the cross. To see that, we have to consider the context in which this story happens.

Just before this event on the mountain, Jesus has started telling his disciples that he will undergo great suffering and rejection, that he will be killed and after three days rise again. This seems so wrong to Peter. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. How can the Messiah, God’s anointed one, undergo suffering? Why wouldn’t God stop the sinfulness of those who would seek to kill Jesus? But Jesus rebukes Peter and says to the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.”

Soon after this, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain and he is transfigured. God speaks and says, “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.” God affirms what Jesus has just said about his suffering and death, about following in the way of the cross. Here too, Bishop Tutu’s insights are so helpful. He writes, “I doubt that we could produce a more spectacular example of this principle of transfiguration than the cross itself. Most people would have been filled with revulsion had someone gone and set up an electric chair or a gallows or the guillotine as an object of reverence. Well, look at the Cross. It was a ghastly instrument of death, of an excruciatingly awful death reserved for the most notorious malefactors. It was an object of dread and shame, and yet, what a turnaround has happened. This instrument of a horrendous death has been spectacularly transfigured.”[3]

It has been transfigured because God has endured the suffering and shame of the cross. God has entered suffering, breaking its power to destroy us. No, nothing, not sin, not suffering, not death, nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God. God is present in even the very worst this world can throw at us to bring metamorphosis, transfiguration. Now no one and no situation is ‘untransfigurable.’

This gives me such hope as I look at the landscape of our country right now. I so often feel like Peter wanting to rebuke God for not stopping the suffering I see happening. The Federal government just executed 13 people in a seven-month time span after a 17 year hiatus in federal executions. Black and brown people continue to be killed by law enforcement, wrongfully imprisoned, and executed by the state. How can this be, God, why didn’t you stop that? Our government separated children from their parents and then lost them. Asylum seekers have been forced to live in squalid conditions in camps on the border when there are more humane, legal options. How can this be? People of color are not able to get vaccinated and when they can, many distrust the process because our government has performed experiments on black and brown people without their consent in very recent memory. This is not OK, God.

God hears these cries and concerns. Then God points us to the cross, to the power of God to transfigure even the most horrendous situation. And God says, don’t just stand there and rebuke this and wring your hands. Listen to Jesus, follow him, enter into the suffering of this world trusting in my power to transfigure. God’s power of metamorphosis can transfigure even our sinful, weary and despairing hearts, opening us to listen and follow.

God transforms us through the cross, through Jesus the Word who convicts us and sets us free, through the gifts of bread and wine that become for us the body and blood of Jesus, and through the church that is formed into the body of Christ.

God is in the business of metamorphosis.

God in Christ Jesus is working that for us, for you, for our whole weary world.

Amen.

[1] God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, by Desmond Tutu. (Us: Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., 2004), pgs. 3-4

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2021 – “How We Are Healed”

Fifth 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.

This story of Simon’s mother-in-law hits pretty close to home during a pandemic. She has a fever and we have a whole new sense of how serious that can be. You can’t always just take Tylenol and an antibiotic and feel better in a few days. We get that on a really visceral level right now. We also have a deeper sense of what an illness with a fever means for this woman. She has to be isolated from the rest of her family, cut off from regular interaction and her role in their life together. She isn’t able to gather with her community of faith for worship. Oh, do we understand how hard that is.

These days we are so very aware of the impact that illness has on individuals and communities. Our longing for healing has deepened. Yet even as we can now more fully understand the impact of this woman’s illness, the story of Jesus healing her might seem even more removed from our own experience. What do we mean when we talk about healing and pray for healing as the pandemic rages, as cancer stalks, as illness seems so ever present in our lives? How do we understand healing as the unclean spirits of racism, hatred, and violence run rampant?

As we ponder these questions, I’m struck by one verse in our story today. It speaks volumes about the ways that Jesus healed this woman and heals us today: “Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Jesus comes to the woman where she is, entering her place of isolation. Jesus comes to her home and then to her bedroom. The illness that has cut her off from her family and community cannot cut her off from God. In the same way, Jesus comes to you today where you are – in your home, your place of isolation during this pandemic.

Jesus comes through scripture, sermon, song, art, and through the community that works to offer this time of worship. Jesus comes to bring you healing and help. The healing that Jesus brings this woman, the healing Jesus brings us is more than, and different than, a cure. Jesus raises her to new life. The translation of this passage I just read says that Jesus “lifted her up”, but an important connection is lost in translation there. The Greek word used actually means raise up. It’s the same word used to describe Jesus’ resurrection. This word conveys the sense that new strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, un- clean spirits, or even death, so that they may rise anew.

This same word is used throughout the healing stories in the book of Mark. This work of raising people seems to be the main goal of Jesus’ healing work. Jesus’ main focus isn’t curing or eliminating illness, but rather the renewal of life as God’s kingdom comes among us. Jesus raises us up for lives of service.

Speaking of service – I know it sounds strange that right after the fever leaves this woman she begins to serve the men. It sounds like a major gender stereotype, like some bad TV sitcom with a guy in a recliner yelling at his wife, “I don’t care if you’ve been sick, I want supper now.” But the Greek here is important, too. The word to describe the way she serves is diakoneo, the word we translate as deacon. Jesus uses the word about himself when he says he came to serve rather than to be served. Jesus calls all of his disciples to this type of service. The church uses this word for those who lead others in the ministry of service.

Simon’s mother-in-law isn’t some sitcom caricature. She’s the first person in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true Christ-like discipleship and service.

Beloved of God, the risen Jesus is still in the business of raising people up. The primary way this happens for us is through baptism and remembrance of baptism. In baptism we are assured that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, are raised to new life in Christ. This does not mean that illness and suffering are eliminated from our lives. It does mean that those things don’t have the power to cut us off from God, from community, or from the renewal of our lives. We are not defined by the things that ail us.

Instead, our lives are defined by what God does for us – the way God names, forgives, and renews us each new day. Baptism also announces our place in the broken and blessed community of the church, the community where we can experience healing and new life, the community in which we are nourished for service. Even when we face illness and can’t do the things we once did, we can still serve in many ways. Sometimes the most important service is to bear witness to how God renews our lives even in the midst of suffering.

One way I’m experiencing new life is through my daily practice of yoga and prayer. My body and spirit are lifted up. I am restored. I’m also being nurtured by the gifts of creation. Sunrises and sun dogs, blue skies, moonlight, fresh snow – all of these gifts are nourishing me. I am being challenged, healed and renewed through the work of the Antiracism Task force as we uncover white supremacy culture within and around us. Most of all, I am healed and raised up by what God is doing through this congregation. Even when we can’t gather, we are worshipping, reaching out, serving and sharing. This brings such healing and hope. I look forward to celebrating all of that today during our annual meeting.

Where are you experiencing new life? And where are you serving these days?

The pandemic is making it hard to serve in the ways we used to, but it is even more vital. And as we are raised up through the gift of the vaccine, how will we use that gift to serve others? Pastors in Iowa are being vaccinated and I got my first dose two weeks ago. Though I wish that teachers and elders got the vaccine before me, I am asking myself, “What will I do to serve when I’ve been fully vaccinated?” I look forward to entering places of isolation, into the rooms of our elders in nursing homes to help assure them that their congregation remembers them, that God is present with them. The window visits I’ve been able to do can convey that to some degree, but in-person visits will mean so much more.

I wonder, too, if I could help others in our county get vaccinated. Our local faith coalition is asking if those who have received vaccines could help with a mass vaccination effort. How will we respond to God’s gift of healing through the vaccine to help raise others up?

The healing and new life Jesus gives don’t necessarily mean a cure. It doesn’t mean the eradication of all illness. It didn’t mean that even for Simon’s mother-in-law. The fever went away that day, but she died eventually, as did everyone Jesus of Nazareth healed and raised up. Sickness, suffering and death still persist, but because of Jesus they do not have ultimate power over us.

Beloved of God, Jesus comes to you today to raise you to new life, to strengthen you to serve.

Thanks be to God.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.