Sermon for Sunday, August 1, 2021  –  “Enough for Today”

Tenth 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.

In this strange year of 2021, I find myself having more empathy for the people of Israel in the wilderness. We heard part of this story in our first reading today. It’s a story full of whining, com- plaining and grumbling. I usually feel some exasperation for the Israelites when I hear it. God has just rescued them from Egypt! Yeah, they’re not yet to the land of milk and honey but they are freed from slavery. They’ll get to the promised land soon; they just need some patience, some trust. They need to practice some gratitude.

Now I get it. Now I feel their pain. The Exodus from Egypt was epic, historic, unprecedented – words we’ve heard a lot over the past year. God delivered them. They had such hope for the future.

Yet then they find themselves in the wilderness facing new challenges and so much uncertainty. They don’t know the way to the promised land. They don’t know how long they’ll be in the desert. They don’t know where they’ll find respite. And they are just done with it all. They are weary and depleted. They need a break.

Sound familiar? We endured 2020 and the long COVID winter. Some of us had it easier, others lost so much. And then we were delivered!  God worked through science to give us vaccines and de- liver us from the worst of the virus. Safe, effective vaccines were developed in record time! They give us such astonishing protection against this plague.

Yet now there are so many new and recurring challenges: the Delta variant, lagging vaccination rates, forest fires, floods, smoke, political divisions, racial injustice, decision fatigue about what is safe and responsible regarding COVID. We keep hearing about a post-pandemic future and how much we will need to continue to adapt to meet it. But we’re really tired and we’re still in the wilderness. The promised land of a post-pandemic world, a new and better normal, feels a long way off.

What will this time require of us? What does the future hold? What will happen to our beloved institutions – to congregations, colleges, non-profits, small businesses? What will school be like this fall? These are the questions we carry with us in our wilderness. Sometimes they become much more than concerns. They become complaints, sighs, and anger. And that’s OK.

God can handle it. Over one-third of the Psalms are lament Psalms, God’s people crying out to God:   “Where are you?” “How long?” “Why have you forsaken me?” God can deal with all of this. God received the Israelite’s complaints long ago in the desert and provides what they need, manna and quails to eat. And God does the same for us now. As we bring our questions, concerns, and anger to God, we find that God is still providing for us in this wilderness just as God provided for the Israelites. One way God does this is to open our eyes to see the gifts that have been there, in creation, all along.

Many scholars believe that the manna was always there; the people just hadn’t noticed. Dr. Terry Fretheim points out that in the Sinai Peninsula there is a “a type of plant lice [that] punctures the fruit of the tamarisk tree and excretes a substance from this juice, a yellowish-white flake or ball.

During the warmth of the day it disintegrates, but it congeals when it is cold. It has a sweet taste. Rich in carbohydrates and sugar, it is still gathered by [local residents], who bake it into a kind of bread (and call it manna). The food decays quickly and attracts ants.” [1]

In the wilderness, the Israelites discover that God has always been providing for them. They have what they need for each day. They can’t see what the future holds. They can’t secure a future for themselves. They can’t store or hoard this manna. They have to take it one day at a time.

God is always providing for us, always at work in creation, but so often we miss it. We get fixated on ourselves, our tasks, our plans, our worries, and we fail to notice the simple, ordinary blessings that God provides each day. During long months at home, many of us noticed the simple gifts more: good coffee, sourdough bread, daily walks, a card from a friend. Our busyness and our plans were put on hold and our eyes were opened to God’s care in daily life.

Now in this different wilderness, God is still providing for us. There is blessing enough for each day. God is always working to help us to see this. And because we always struggle to see God’s care, God has come to be present with us in Jesus who shares our humanity.

Jesus joins us and works to open our eyes.
Jesus feeds us with God’s abundant love, with forgiveness, with community.
Jesus also breathes on us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that renews, upholds, and ignites us to face each day with hope and courage.

We don’t know what the future will hold. We don’t know how long we will be in this wilderness. Yet God is present with us, and God provides enough for this day.

And when we cannot see this and cannot trust this, God also receives our worries, anger, and complaints. God hears us and all our struggles. God holds us and all our worries. The Spirit works to help us take a deep breath and release it all to God.

Let’s do that now as we prepare to sing our hymn together.
Let’s breathe together and release all our concerns to God.

[1] Terrance Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 182.

Sermon for Sunday, July 25,  2021  – “Gifts Multiplied”

Ninth 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.

The need is great. There’s a large crowd, thousands of people coming toward Jesus. They are poor and hungry and hurting. Jesus wants to feed them. He poses the question to the disciples: How are we going to get these folks fed? Jesus’ disciple Andrew is aware of some resources, five loaves and two fish. “But,” he asks, “what are they among so many people?” In the face of great need, what Andrew has to offer seems so lacking.

It’s so easy to feel the same way about what we have to give – thinking it’s just not enough, just not worthy of the great need.

Recently some dear friends came to visit my husband Matt and me. They came to pray with us, sing with us, and care for us as we continue to recover from Matt’s serious car accident this past May.   We had a wonderful time together. We laughed and cried, sang and prayed. It was incredibly nourishing. I felt so fed and healed and so grateful for their care. A few weeks later we saw these friends and one of them said to me, “I feel awful that we didn’t bring you any food that day.” This is a wise, prayerful, faithful person. Yet even after she had fed us so profoundly, she struggled to trust that her gift was enough.

There are so many voices in our culture telling us we have to do more and be more – more, more, more. There are so many voices telling us we will never have enough to give, never be able to make a difference in the face of so much need. With all these loud voices clamoring we diminish and deny the gifts God has given us. We get paralyzed by all the hurting, hungry people in our own lives, in the world.

Yet Jesus is not deterred. Jesus persists in using what we have to feed and heal this hurting world. Just as he did that day on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus takes what we have, gives thanks and distributes it. He uses what we offer to share nourishment and abundance widely, extravagantly for everyone.

A wonderful example of this is the Krumkake ministry of this congregation. People give what they can. Some bring eggs, some butter or milk or sugar, some give money for ingredients. The body of Christ here receives this all with gratitude. Then everything gets combined into batter that fills tub after tub. And then more people show up to bake. Some give two hours of time. Others return day after day. One man who worked a great many shifts this year told me, “This is all I can do to help around here anymore.” What beautiful loaves and fishes he offers.

Then the Krumkake is sold at Nordic Fest, bringing joy and connection. And then all the proceeds from the sales are given away. Well over $2000 each year is given to help others. This is such a vivid example of how Jesus takes our gifts and multiplies them. A similar thing happens when we each do our small part for people in crisis. Some bring meals, some plant flowers or send gifts, walk dogs or mow lawns, some help with driving, some send cards, some pray without ceasing, others offer music. My own family has been so healed and nourished by all these gifts and more.

Jesus works through everything that is offered.

The same kind of thing happens with our voices when we sing together. We bring all our different voices – some that are trained, some that are timid, some that are cracking, some off-key. Jesus re- ceives them all, gives thanks and multiplies them into a beautiful chorus that nourishes and heals.

This is what Jesus does. This is what we can trust that Jesus will do that with the big challenges we face, including antiracism work. Addressing and healing the racism that plagues us can feel so overwhelming. We can get paralyzed by the need and our limitations. Yet God has given this con- gregation much more than five loaves and two fish for the essential work of antiracism. We can share our willingness to listen, our experiences, our hopes, our prayers, our advocacy, our longing for healing, our human compassion. We can trust that Jesus will receive our meager, broken offerings and will work in and through them to heal and feed. We can show up for the work trusting Jesus to use what we have.

This summer our Anti Racism Task Force is working to create ways for this congregation to offer our gifts as we do the work of adopting a racial justice statement and committing to action together. We will have two gatherings this September and further opportunities for conversation about antiracism in different aspects of our ministry. Watch for more information in the weeks to come.

God our creator has given us such gifts.
We all have so much more than five loaves and two fish.
We can offer what we have, trusting Jesus will multiply it to feed and heal.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, July 18, 2021 – “Jesus With a Sledgehammer”

Eighth 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.

This week during Vacation Bible School, one of the kids noticed the beautiful wooden cross in the Fellowship Hall. So, we went to take a closer look at it together. We talked about all the images of Jesus shown on that cross: Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the resurrection, the bread of life. I noticed one image that wasn’t there – Jesus with a sledgehammer, breaking down walls. Of course, that isn’t a popular image for Jesus, but it is one that’s captured my attention this week as I prayed with our reading from Ephesians. We’re told Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” I keep picturing Jesus as God’s wrecking crew, smashing through all the hostile barriers we put up.

Jesus with a sledgehammer isn’t a warm, fuzzy image, but it’s one we really need. Our world is full of walls, fences, gates, partitions, all manner of barriers. Of course, we do need some walls for protection, safety, privacy, for large buildings to function well. Yet walls, both literal and spiritual, can also increase hostility in our world. All walls serve a purpose, but not all walls serve the purposes of God. God’s purposes, according to Ephesians, are to “create one new humanity thus making peace,” and to build us together into “a dwelling place for God”. That feels like an awfully ambitious building project, especially these days. Yet God who raised Jesus from the dead can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. God is at work to build a new heaven, a new earth, and a new humanity.

But in order for this construction project to happen, Jesus has to do some demolition work within each of us because we all help to build up hostility in our world. We are all master builders when it comes to putting up walls between ourselves and others. It’s so easy to judge other wall builders: in Israel, on the southern border, between Jews and Gentiles in ancient times. Yet when we do honest digging within, we see that we engage in the same kind of stuff. It may be on a smaller scale, but the results are just as divisive.

We draw sharp lines between us and them, black and white, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, and on and on and on. We pile on the raw materials of fear and hatred, and there’s no shortage of those very raw materials within us. We cement it all together with our stereotypes and prejudices and fortify it with our pride. The walls grow taller and thicker. Our sin cuts us off from one another and from God, for God has commanded us to love and it grieves God when we do not. But Jesus works to break the power of sin within us and free us from the tall prisons we create. On the cross, Jesus proved that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Jesus tore down the curtain, the barrier that would keep us away from God.

We now have a place in God’s household. This is a very large house that has space for all tribes and nations. It is a dwelling place that has many rooms, but no walls of hostility. We now have a place as citizens of God’s kingdom, a kingdom with wide open borders. We are no longer aliens or strangers but citizens with the saints. We have a place to belong, a place to call home. Most of the time when we belong somewhere, we are the insiders while others are outsiders. We belong to a family, nation or congregation and others don’t, we are part of the tribe and others aren’t. Yet God is creating one new humanity with no distinctions between people. To accomplish this, Jesus not only tears down walls. Jesus also preaches peace to those far off and those near in order to draw us all into God.

As Jesus brings us together with people that we would prefer to keep at a distance, he keeps chipping away at our walls. When we are in proximity with other people – when we know their names, their stories, their hopes and dreams – it is so much harder to hate them. The walls of hostility begin to crumble.

This is what can and does happen in congregations. Congregations are one of the few places that conservatives and progressives and people from all generations gather together. Here at Good Shepherd there is an assumption that everyone is liberal. That is not true. And we are all so much more than our beliefs and political views. We get to experience God’s large household as we talk and listen to one another. And since ELCA congregations also tend to be very homogenous places when it comes to race, income, sexuality, and gender identity, it’s also important for each of us to go outside our congregations and our comfort zones to be in conversation with people who are very different from us.

We need to be in proximity to those we fear, those we hate. This is so hard to do on our own, but we aren’t on our own as we do it. Jesus is our peace and he is with us. We can follow where he leads into uncomfortable conversations and relationships. In God’s kingdom we have the assur- ance of a home, a place to belong, but this assurance is not for our comfort. It is so we can stop worrying about whether we belong and start working to make sure everyone knows that they be- long to God. It is so we will stop feeling the need to build walls to protect ourselves, and instead join in God’s work of building a whole new humanity.

In Christ, we have been given the tools we need to join that work.

We have been given Jesus who is both God’s wrecking crew and God’s peace.
We have been given forgiveness, reconciliation and access to God.
We have been drawn near to those we fear, as Jesus shows us that we are held together in the heart of God.
We have all that we need.

Let’s take a moment for prayer.

Final Summer Music Series Concert – Sunday, July 18, 2021

Following worship, at 11:00 am, Sunday, July 18, we have the last in our Summer Music Series, a concert with Free Time + Jon Ailabouni. 


Free Time is a Decorah-based jazz trio featuring Luther College grads Troy Downey (guitar), Andrew Moore (bass), and Leo Naughton Herbach (drums). The group can frequently be found at regional venues playing a mix of jazz and contemporary music. Free Time released their eponymous debut album in 2020. They’ll be joined by Decorah trumpeter and congregation member Jon Ailabouni for this performance. The concert will last 30-45 minutes and is free and open to the public. Masks are required.

Sermon for  Sunday,  July 11, 2021 – ”Good News for Real Lives”

Seventh 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.

So, clearly, the Bible is not a bunch of Disney fairy tales. In case we had any doubt, this troubling Gospel reading today drives home that point. The Bible is not a collection of happily ever after endings. It’s not a bunch of simple moral lessons where good is rewarded and evil is punished. If it was, this strange story about John the Baptist would have a very different ending.

A corrupt king has no regard for the well-being of the community or other people and takes his brother’s wife as his own. John, a good and upright man, speaks truth to power. He takes a stand and does the right thing. This brave stance angers Herod’s wife, Herodias.  She holds a grudge. She plots against John. She uses her daughter to get back at him. Herodias is the classic wicked witch of Disney fairy tales. And this is a classic good vs. evil story. But the ending is all wrong.

The head of Herodias should land on a platter, not John’s!  She should be thwarted. There should be some twist of fate so that the villain is the one who ends up dead. Herod should see the error in his ways and make John the chief moral officer of the realm. If this was a Disney story, it would all play out very differently.

But the Bible is about real people and the real world, not Disney characters. And as strange as this story may seem at first, it has a lot in common with life as we know it.  In our real lives, bad things happen to good people. Innocent people are detained, tortured, and killed. Corruption is not easily fixed. Speaking truth to power is rare and risky and often futile. Women are treated as possessions, their voices are ignored. Young girls are used as objects.

In real life, we have more in common with the villains than we’d like to admit. We distance our- selves from people who tell us things we’d rather not hear. We worry about losing face and im- pressing others. We choose to be comfortable and at ease instead of advocating for others. We seek revenge. And there are no neat and tidy endings to all of this, not in the Bible and not in real life.

Our culture has tried to make the Bible and Christianity into a kind of morality tale. If you do good and have enough faith, then God will bless you and protect you and you will live happily ever after.

But that isn’t how the life of faith works. That isn’t the good news of the Gospel. The good news is that God has entered the real world in the person of Jesus. Jesus has experienced all the pain, sor- row, evil and sin of this world. He was truly innocent, yet he was betrayed, abandoned, tortured, and killed. This means there is nothing that we face, nothing in our real lives that our God does not know intimately. God knows all the pain of this world.

And now, by the power of the resurrection, Jesus is not contained to life 2,000 years ago, but is alive and present in each of our own lives now. By the power of the resurrection nothing, not even death, can keep God from being present for us, from working new life for us. By the power of the resurrection, God is present with immigrant children in detention centers, with those languishing in prison who have been wrongly convicted, with women caught up in human trafficking. By the power of the resurrection, God is present in our own broken lives, empowering us to show up with love and faithfulness in our world.

Sometimes we interpret Jesus’ resurrection as a fairy tale ending. It all worked out well for him.

We will all go to heaven and live happily ever after. Yet the good news of the resurrection is about so much more than heaven one day. The good news of the resurrection is that God disrupts the pain of this world from the inside to work new life for this world. The good news of the rescurrection is that God liberates us and raises us to new lives of love and faithfulness here and now.

These lives aren’t easy and comfortable, yet resurrection empowers us to experience and share God’s gifts of peace and wellbeing. Resurrection is God’s gift of abundance and healing and whole-  ness for all creation.

Resurrection sounds like all of us singing together after a year of isolation. It looks like how the family of Ben Splichal Larson works to share his beautiful music with Christ’s church, music that assures us of God’s presence in all things. Resurrection smells like people baking krumkake to celebrate community and raise funds for mission work. Resurrection looks like the Antiracism Task Force working to disrupt the white supremacy that keeps us bound. It sounds like small groups gathering to reconnect and talk about what God is doing among us now. Resurrection looks like the people of Cedar Falls area Fredsville Lutheran Church coming together to clean up its cemetery that was vandalized recently.

We don’t get happily ever after endings.

We do get resurrection.

We get Jesus present in everything that our real lives hold.

We get God working new life always.

We have all that we need to live with hope and courage in this real world.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.