Sermon for Sunday, May 9, 2021 – “The Gift of Joy”

Sixth Sunday of Easter
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 part of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his death. The church returns to these words during the Easter season to reflect on them in light of the resurrection. Jesus has a lot to say. His farewell speech takes up four chapters in the gospel of John.

Today we learn one of Jesus’ hopes for this long goodbye. “I have said these things to you,” Jesus explains, “so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” If I was one of Jesus’ first disciples, I think I would have had some questions when he started talking about joy right then.

What do you mean Jesus? You’ve just been telling us you’re going to be betrayed, tortured, and killed. The people who want to kill you probably want us dead, too. We’ve learned to love you and trust you and hope in you, but now you’re saying goodbye, way too soon. And you’re talking about joy? Come again?

Joy can seem a little inappropriate in the face of death. Joy can seem hard to access in difficult times. Yet Jesus wants his disciples, all of us, to have joy: joy in the face of death, joy amidst sorrow and fear and uncertainty, joy within us, joy that is complete. Jesus wants this for us.

And thankfully, joy does not depend upon us. It doesn’t depend on whether we think it is appropriate, whether we can summon it up. Joy is a gift from God. The biblical word for joy has the same root as the word for grace. Just as grace is a free, undeserved gift not dependent on anything we do, so too is joy.

I wonder if joy is what grace feels like in our bodies. Grace is such good news, but it is kind of abstract and heady. Joy is a tangible experience of grace. I remember feeling joy again after a very difficult time in my life. My mom died suddenly in November.  A few months later, we learned my dad’s kidney cancer had returned. I’d been in a fog for months. I was oblivious to the start of spring that year.

And then one day, while walking to work, crab apple blossoms on a tree caught my eye. I felt joy arising from deep within me. I hadn’t been paying attention. I hadn’t been able to take deep breaths or meditate. I was hardly able to pray. I had done nothing to choose joy. Joy just welled up within me that day as my eyes were drawn to a glorious gift of God’s creation. My shoulders felt lighter. I lifted up my head and noticed crab apple blossoms everywhere. I could breathe deeply for the first time in a long while. Now, to this day crab apple blossoms look and smell like joy to me.

Joy is pure gift, pure grace, that does not depend upon us. And there is so much that gets in the way of joy. So, thanks be to God, Jesus gives us what we need to experience and participate in God’s gift of joy more fully.

First, Jesus calls us to abide, to dwell, in a loving relationship with our creator where we can rest and breathe and be nourished. When we are struggling to experience joy, Jesus invites us to simply abide in God’s love, to be nurtured by God’s gifts. These gifts include rest, prayer, worship, creation, community, therapy, music, poetry, food, exercise, modern medicine. Medications that tend to our mental health are incredible gifts of God. Community is such an important gift. In community, others can pray for us, others can hold onto hope on our behalf when we can’t imagine ever feeling joy again. If you are struggling to know joy, just rest in God today. This community will hold on to hope for you.

Jesus also calls us into ways of being that help us and others to experience joy. Jesus commands us to love others as God loves us – to love freely, without judgement, without expecting others to earn love – and to live out grace and mercy for the sake of others. Jesus commands us to give of ourselves, especially for those who are suffering most.

This is a joyful way to be in the world. It isn’t something we can muster up on our own. We can live this way because God gives us what we need to love when it is hard, when we are afraid. We can live this way because God’s grace frees us from sin and empowers us to address racism, injustice, poverty, suffering. We are loved so that we can love others.

Joy is God’s gift to all people, to you. Joy does not depend upon you. It is not something you have to summon on your own. Joy will come unbidden and lift you up. Jesus also gives you what you need to experience and participate in joy more fully. Jesus draws you into relationship with God and into a joyful, loving way of being in the world.

Jesus wants you to know joy – joy in the face of death, joy in the face of sorrow and fear and uncertainty, joy within you, joy that is complete.

Today, Jesus’ word comes to you that you may know joy.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Worship Indoors – Sunday, May 9, 2021 – 9:30 am – Signup Here

We have made the decision to move worship indoors this weekend, Sunday May 9 at 9:30 am. As we’ve worked with our distancing plan in the sanctuary, we have found that we can accommodate 60 people. Please sign up for a spot for worship here: 

Sign up for Indoor Worship, May 9

Sermon for Sunday, May 2, 2021 – “Branch Out in Love”

Fifth Sunday of Easter
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.

Abide is such a beautiful word. To abide is to put down roots, settle in and feel at home. To abide with someone is to be there for them, day in and day out, for the long haul. Jesus abides with us.

Jesus, the vine, is a grounding, nourishing home for us. Our connection to this home, this vine, allows us to branch out into the world in life-giving ways. It allows us to provide shelter and nourishment for others. This is such good news in this unsettling time.

Author Diana Butler Bass says the pandemic has profoundly dislocated us.[1] When I first started reading her article about this I thought, no! We’ve been overly located, in the same place for far too long. Most of us have spent way too much time stuck in our houses. Yet as she described all the ways we’ve been dislocated, that word started to help me make sense of what’s happened to us.

Bass says we’ve experienced temporal dislocation – that is, we’ve lost our sense of time. Early in the pandemic we often had no idea what day it was. Whether your days were way too empty or far too full, everything was out of whack, our normal rhythms disrupted. One morning news show started a segment called, “What Day Is It”. They’d play 70s style game show music and build up suspense around the question until they revealed, “Today is Tuesday.”

Time still seems to be moving differently. It feels like the pandemic has lasted ten years, yet I can’t believe it’s May again. Last week I said to my husband, “Oh, that isn’t until the end of April”, about an event that was happening in two days. Apparently, this is called temporal dislocation. Knowing there’s a name for it makes me feel a little more normal.

Bass says we’ve also experienced historical dislocation. She writes, “We’ve lost our sense of where we are in the larger story of both our own lives and our communal stories. History has been dis- rupted. Where are we? Where are we going? The growth of conspiracy theories, the intensity of social media, political and religious “deconstructions” – these are signs of a culture seeking a meaningful story to frame its lives because older stories have failed. That’s historical dislocation.”[2]

We’ve also experienced physical dislocation. Our bodies are meant to be with other bodies in physical space. They’re meant to touch and smell and taste. It’s unsettling to shop for a tomato when you can’t feel it or even see it. It’s disorienting to worship in the place where you watch TV,  work and exercise, sleep, study, shop and socialize. In this virtual world, many of us have been doing things to help our bodies feel more grounded in physical space. We’ve made bread and gardened and taken on projects. Yet we’ve still been so disconnected from normal patterns of moving through space.

Of course, we’ve also experienced profound relational dislocation. We’ve had to celebrate holidays and birthdays and milestones without our loved one’s present. Yet we’ve also missed smiles from the checker at the grocery store and serendipitous conversations with acquaintances. We’ve spent hours staring at screens with a whole bunch of squares filled with faces whose voices are often muted.

We’ve been dislocated from our sense of time, history, place, and relationships.

Now that more of us have been vaccinated, now that more of us are moving out into the world, we’re being unsettled again. A Good Shepherd member shared a funny email. It reads, “Please pray for us. We are planning to go to an indoor church service tomorrow morning. Oh, it’s not the Covid that concerns us. Barb and I are fully vaccinated and the church follows strict protocols … No, the challenge will be to get out of bed, dress respectfully and arrive at church before 8 am. I hope it’s not too much of a shock to our systems.”

At Good Shepherd most people don’t need to arrive until 9:30, but still, our changing patterns right now are disrupting us and raising all sorts of new questions. Can we handle worship outside with bugs and noise and weather? Can we get through in-person meetings when everyone is distanced and masked? Do we still know how to make small talk? We face larger questions as well. How will the church be different post-pandemic? How can we better care for the earth, our shared home, and better care for one another? How can we love and serve as our nation grapples with historic and systemic racism, and when so many in the world don’t have access to vaccines or safe places to live or enough food to eat?

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” 

Life in our world right now is so unsettling and disorienting, yet we have been given a place to abide. We have been given a relationship with Jesus in which we can rest and breathe, put down roots and settle in. This life-giving relationship with Jesus provides so much grounding and nur- ture amid all the dislocation we’ve experienced.

Relationship with Jesus reshapes our sense of time. Jesus has entered human time and is present with us in it, working new life. This frees us to move in time differently. We can be present to all the drudgery, beauty, and pain of our days for Jesus abides with us there. In every moment we face, we are not alone. Relationship with Jesus also gives us a life-giving story in a time of historical dislocation. Human sin, suffering and death do not have the final word. God is at work to bring new life.

In relationship with Jesus, we are seen, known, and loved fully, completely, with no need for masks. We are nourished with life-giving words and with a tangible feast of love. We are given community. In Jesus, the vine, we are nourished, strengthened, and cleansed so that we can branch out into the world in life-giving ways. We are given what we need to bear fruit so that others can be fed and sheltered, so that our earth can flourish.

Beloved of God, Jesus is your abiding place. You are rooted and grounded in Jesus’ love. Jesus abides with you. And you are a branch on Jesus’ life-giving vine. Jesus is at work in you to bring life to others.

You can breathe in this good news.

You can branch out into this world in love.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

[1] “Religion After the Pandemic” by Diana Butler Bass. Blog post on her blog: “The Cottage”, April 26, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

Sermon for Sunday, April 25, 2021 – “Shepherding God”

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Sunday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Every Fourth Sunday of Easter, the whole church focuses on how Jesus is our Good Shepherd. We pray with the words of Psalm 23 which help us to trust in God our shepherd. This is a day for the whole church, but it feels especially significant for this congregation as we gather on land that used to be a sheep farm. Psalm 23 is meaningful all the time, but it feels especially important as we enter this time of transition as a congregation. As we begin gathering again, as we move out of isolation and back into community, our shepherd is leading us on this journey. So today I want to invite us to dive deep into Psalm 23. I’ll walk us through the Psalm as it is printed in your bulletin; you’re invited to follow along there. (The Psalm translation is from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Copyright © 2019 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. License # SB118886)

1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not  be in want.

Shepherds provide sheep with enough to eat so that they aren’t left wanting, needing more. Yet shepherds also must ensure that sheep don’t get too much. Sheep are almost always wanting, al- most always hungry. If they’re turned loose in a lush pasture or allowed to free feed on hay, they will usually overeat. Shepherds these days even vaccinate their sheep against enterotoxaemia or “overeating disease”. It’s the shepherd’s responsibility to keep sheep from over consuming. This is important for the health of individual sheep and for the sake of the herd for the long haul. Shepherds must ensure pasture isn’t over grazed so that there is enough for the whole herd for the long term.

God is our shepherd and God does the same for us. God does feed and nurture us. God gives us daily bread. Yet God helps us to not constantly want and seek more, for our own sake and for the sake of creation. If only there was a vaccination to keep humans from over consuming! Yet, God has given us gifts that can inoculate us against the lure of consumerism, that can protect us from a frenzied life of wanting more and more. God’s gifts of scripture, worship, and Christian community help us to not constantly be in want.

2The LORD makes me lie down | in green pastures and leads me be- | side still waters.

Americans struggle to stop, to just lay down in green pastures and rest. We are driven to consume, achieve, accomplish, multitask and serve – all of which can be good things. Too much of this can make us sick and our world out of whack. We need rest and stillness. Sometimes, we need our shepherd to make us lie down.

For many of you, the pandemic has provided too much quiet and stillness. Now that you are vaccinated, you are trying to find new rhythms. For others, you have been incredibly busy as work and family life have become even more challenging during this time. We need God to lead us all into new patterns that facilitate rest and renewal for us and for others.

Today, our shepherd comes to us, to you, and says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Stop and rest in the still waters of your baptism. Let the water remind you that you are mine, and I love you. I love you not because of what you accomplish but because you are my beloved child. Be still and know this. Let this promise sink deep in you so that you can embody God’s gift of rest, a gift every- one needs.

3You restore my | soul, O LORD, and guide me along right pathways | for your name’s sake.

Sheep are creatures of habit. Left to themselves they will follow the same trails until they become ruts, graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes, and pollute the same ground until it is ruined by disease and parasites. We do the same. We know we need to develop new habits and follow different paths regarding our care for one another and the earth, yet we are creatures of habit and we end up following the same old destructive paths.

Sheep also have a strong instinct to follow the sheep in front of them. When one sheep decides to go somewhere, the rest of the flock usually follows. On our own it can be hard to follow the paths of life. This is especially true if the whole herd is rushing somewhere. We are so easily swept along towards war, violence, pollution, and injustice. For this reason, God trains us to recognize and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, the One who leads us on the paths of life. God gives us the commandments saying, “Do these things so that it may go well with you.”

4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

When sheep are afraid, they simply won’t move. They just come to a stand still and lock their legs.  But if a shepherd goes before them, they will follow and go places they would be afraid to go alone.

It is scary to face death, grief, and sorrow; and we have so much of it to face in the wake of this devastating year. Our culture tells us it is much better to avoid unpleasantness, to numb ourselves to it, or escape it some way. But the only way out of grief is through it. The only way to get out of the valley is to go through it. We need to face the pain of this year. Yet God will not leave us alone; our Good Shepherd goes before and with us. Jesus walked before us through the valley of death and showed that life is more powerful than death. Now Jesus walks with us through the valleys, through the grief and into new life.

 5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

A shepherd’s presence is so comforting to sheep that, even when they are surrounded by wolves, they can eat and be content as long as the shepherd stays with them. We too can have peace and contentment even when we’re surrounded by enemies, troubles, and worries because our shepherd is with us. 

To assure us of that, Jesus spreads a table of love before us. Jesus comes to us in his body and blood and is present with us. Jesus gives us the cup that runs over with love for us and anoints us with  the oil of God’s love in baptism. So, we can eat and feast and celebrate even when troubles press in all around. We are not paralyzed by the challenges. We are strengthened and nourished to go out and face troubles with confidence. We are empowered to work so that all may know God’s goodness and all may feast at the banquet of love.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The Hebrew word for “follow” is actually the word “pursue.” When it feels like enemies and troubles are in hot pursuit, this Psalm assures us that God’s goodness and mercy are even more relentless. They are always close behind us, always pushing us into the abundance God longs for us all to know.

Jesus Christ, our shepherd, has brought us here today. Jesus has brought you and each one of us here to rest and be nourished in this green pasture beside still waters. Here Jesus feeds and nourishes us so that we will not be in want. Here Jesus trains us to know and to recognize his voice so that we can follow that voice on the paths of life. Here Jesus sets a table of his presence before us and reminds us that we are anointed in the baptismal oil of God’s love.

When the service is over, Jesus will lead us out. Jesus will go ahead of you into the world, through the valley, pursued by goodness and mercy.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Worship will be held inside on Sunday, April 25.

Please sign-up on the sign-up link here.  A maximum of 50 people can be in the building.

Sign-up for Worship for Sunday, April 25, 2021