Sermon for Sunday, March 14, 2021 – “Strange Remedies”

Fourth 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.

When I was a kid, my mom had some strange home remedies. Anytime I’d come in itching with mosquito bites, she’d bring out the toothpaste and smear it all over my arms. I got a big ugly wart once and she applied duct tape. Before long car trips, she’d have me drink lemon juice to prevent motion sickness.

I was quite suspicious of these remedies. I wanted to go to the store and buy the stuff that said “results guaranteed” right there on the box. “Can’t I just take Dramamine like Stephanie does?” I’d whine. “Why can’t you keep calamine lotion around like every other mom?” I’d complain.  “I am your mom. Trust me,” was her only response. I now use all of her strange remedies myself.

Our Old Testament reading today has two very strange remedies in the midst of a very disturbing story. What’s most strange, and very troubling, is that God sends a plague of poisonous serpents upon the people.

Up to this point in their story, God has been incredibly generous to the people: claiming them as God’s own, bringing them out of slavery, committing to them with a covenant, leading them in the wilderness towards the promised land, providing food in the desert. God tells them again and again, “Do not be afraid. I am your God, trust me, listen to me.” But the people just can’t get past their fear and anxiety.

Instead of trusting, they hoard the food God provides and it rots. They worship idols. They get impatient and irritable, demanding a quick fix with “results guaranteed”. They grumble and whine with complaints like we heard today, “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (Which one is it: no food or gross food? Can’t be both.)

So instead of moving forward into the promised land, God’s people get stuck – stuck in a seething pit of anxiety, fear, bitterness, whining. All of this stuff poisons them, draining their life away.

Ever felt like that?

God doesn’t just watch from afar as they dig deeper and deeper into a toxic hole. God sends poisonous serpents that bite them and many die. Actually, the Hebrew here doesn’t mean poisonous. It means fiery.

It is the word seraph, as in seraphim and cherubim – God’s messengers in the Bible. God sends fiery messenger serpents to bite the people. Fiery seraphs also appear to Isaiah when God calls him to be a prophet. Seraphs get his attention. They do the same thing for the people here. You thought your life was bad. No, this is bad. Nothing like the possibility of your death to awaken you to the beauty of your life.

Perhaps the fiery messenger serpents that God sends aren’t so much a punishment as they are a wake-up call to the people – a strange remedy to startle them out of their anxiety and bitterness. Except, did God really send the serpents, or is that what the people thought in hindsight? Maybe serpents got their attention and they interpreted that as a message from God? I don’t know. And even if serpents were God’s do- ing back then, does God still send things that hurt us? I really don’t think so; I just don’t think God is the cause of suffering.

What I do know is that in my own life, there have been some painful wake-up calls that have broken through my grumbling and self-pity, that have helped me to notice God’s presence and God’s care. Did God orchestrate those moments to open my eyes? I don’t think so. Yet I do believe God used those difficult times for good, that God didn’t cause them but was at work in them.

This past year, our country has experienced painful wake-up calls around issues of race, public health, climate change, political polarization. I do not believe God is the cause of these challenges – not at all. Yet I do believe God can use them for good, to get our attention and turn us around. We do need to listen to fiery messengers who make us confront the consequences of our destructive ways of being. Their messages may cause pain and discomfort, but we need to pay attention. Painful things can be strange remedies.

The serpents in the wilderness definitely get the peoples’ attention. They recognize how toxic their lives have become, how much they need God. They confess their sin and ask God to remove the serpents. But God doesn’t remove them. Instead, God makes a way through the situation, healing in the midst of it. God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole. Then the people who are bitten can look upon the serpent and live. This sounds like hocus-pocus stuff; it sounds like worshipping an idol. Yet the people aren’t told to worship the bronze serpent, just to look upon it. And God promises to work through that physical object to bring healing.

Still the healing is not a painless, quick fix. The people are asked to take a hard look at the very thing that is poisoning them, to face the consequences of their noxious way of being. They’re also asked to change their perspective – to not fixate on the serpent bites, but rather to gaze upon what God is doing to bring healing. As they do this, they find that the serpent bites no longer kill them. The terrifying serpents no longer have power to destroy them. Another strange remedy that works.

We have been given a similar strange remedy. As our Gospel reading today says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Jesus is lifted up on the cross. This calls us to face all the sin, fear, pain and suffering of this world, and to take a hard look at everything that poisons us. Just as the people had to look upon a serpent, we have to face the consequences of our sinful ways of being.

Yet as we gaze upon the cross, we also see that these things no longer have the power to destroy us. For Jesus is not only lifted up on the cross, Jesus is also raised to new life in the resurrection and lifted up into a restored relationship within the Triune God. By the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we, too, are raised to new life and a new relationship with God. This gives us a new perspective on all the sin, suffering and death we face. It helps us to not fixate upon it but to see what God is doing in the midst of it. God is work- ing healing and life. God is drawing us into deeper communion with the triune God.

The strange remedy of Jesus lifted up means that, personally and collectively:

We can face all our fears, prejudice, violence.
We can examine the white supremacy that infects us all.
We can face the ways we are poisoning God’s creation.
We can address our failures as a nation and as the church.

We can do this trusting that God is present in the midst of all of this, working healing. We can do this trusting that all these toxic things do not have ultimate power over us, that God brings new life from it all. It is not a quick fix; it will not be easy and pain free. Yet God is present for you working healing and new life. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Let’s take a moment for prayer and reflection.

Sermon for Sunday, March 7, 2021 – “Zeal for Justice and Holiness”

Third 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.

“Pastor Amy, I need to talk to you.” I turned to see one of Good Shepherd’s youngest members. She was waiting with a sense of some urgency after one of the outdoor communion services last summer. I knelt down to look this four-year old in the eye and I saw some tears there. “Pastor Amy,” she said with passion, “I miss inside church.” “Oh, I know,” I said, “I do, too.” This smart and feisty girl was quick to respond. “Yes, but you get to be inside every week. Why can’t we? I see you there when we watch church. I want to be there with you.”

I learned later that this young member had gone inside to use the restroom after worship. She then ran out of the restroom and down the hall towards the sanctuary. When she got to the entrance, the sight brought her to a screeching halt. She just stood there staring at the empty space that should have been full of people and music and prayers. She ran from there to share her pain and frustration with me.

This encounter reminds me of another one of our young ones, a two-year old boy. He was on a walk down Iowa Avenue with his parents last spring. As they approached Good Shepherd’s building, this little boy ran to the doors and pulled on them crying, “Open, open, let’s go in.”

These two children, with their strong emotions and their zeal for this house of worship, have so much to teach us about following Jesus and being church.

White mainline Christians don’t often display strong emotions at church. We often get the message that church involves being nice and polite and controlled, sitting quietly, not making a fuss. There’s especially a lot of discomfort around the emotion of anger. It does sometimes erupt in meetings and life together, but it’s often judged as sinful and wrong.

White mainline American Christians also are not usually known for zeal about gathering for worship.

African Lutherans often walk for miles to get to worship services that last for hours, but we tend to worship when it is convenient, when it works for us, if we get something out of it. Worship here has a transactional, marketplace feel. Life in the US means we can shop around for a congregation that meets our needs, that feels comfortable, that won’t challenge us too much. Yet we follow Jesus! Jesus who is full of passion and zeal! Our Gospel story today is one of the most extreme examples of Jesus’ passion, but he is rarely the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” that is often pictured in stained glass windows.

Jesus challenges his disciples – remember last week when he called Peter Satan? He provokes the religious leaders. He disrupts the status quo. He loses patience with the way God’s house has become a market-place and with the whole system of transactional worship through the offering of sacrifices.

As author Debie Thomas puts it, “Jesus is a disruptor. A leveller. An upender. As his disciples immediately realize when he throws out the moneychangers and occupies the temple, zeal is what animates the Messiah. Fervor, not casualness. Depths, not surfaces. He will not tolerate the desecration of his Father’s house. He is not impressed by ‘marketplace’ faith … Jesus interrupts ‘business as usual’ … he interrupts worship as usual for the sake of justice and holiness. His love for God, the temple, and its people compels him to righteous anger.”[1] (end quote)

Sometimes it can be good for God’s people to be disrupted. Over the past 12 months, church business as usual, worship as usual, have been mightily disrupted, and that is not all bad. Comparing our disruptions to Jesus in the temple is not to say that God caused all the challenges to the church this year. Rather it is to say that God can work through these disruptions to interrupt our casualness and complacency, to create more passion and zeal within us, to deepen justice and holiness.

This year, this congregation has grown in our zeal for this house of worship as we’ve longed to gather together in this sanctuary. Yet we’ve also chosen to not be complacent or comfortable in the face of the virus. We’ve done what is hard in order to honor the body of Christ and all bodies as we’ve refrained from gathering to prevent the spread of the virus. We’ve learned how to worship in new ways that have served more people. I give thanks for how we’ve responded to these disruptions.

I also hope that once it’s safe to reopen, we won’t be complacent about gathering for worship. I pray we’ll prioritize coming together in this holy place. Or, if you live far from here that you go to another holy place. We will need to continue to use technology to reach out and to bring worship to the homes of those whose health prevents them from gathering. Yet we also need to keep inviting and encouraging one another to gather for worship.

Certainly, God cannot be contained in buildings. In this Gospel passage today, Jesus makes it clear that the presence of God dwells most fully now in his body rather than in the temple. Yet in gathering for worship, we are putting our own bodies in a place where it’s harder to tune out God’s disruptive, transformative word, where we can most fully receive Christ’s body in holy communion, where it’s harder to ignore the needs of other bodies. All this means that when we gather for worship, we are putting our bodies in a place where we can be more fully formed into the body of Christ. Once it is safe to do so, we need to move out of our comfort zones and back into holy sanctuaries.

This disruptive year has also evoked and revealed many emotions within us – grief, fear, anger. I pray that we will make room for all these emotions when we gather again for worship, that we will not simply be nice and polite and quiet. Our emotions are a gift from God and God can work through them to shape us into more passionate followers of Jesus, more zealous advocates of God’s justice. One of the gifts of gathering for worship is being with children and people with special needs who are often much more free with their emotions. We need to hear their cries, listen to their shouts, and watch them move to help us work with our emotions.

Emotions can be scary, anger can feel really scary right now, especially given our polarized political climate. How do we discern if our anger is righteous or self-serving, a force for justice, or harmful to the body of Christ and the body politic? We bring it to God in worship, we pray with it using the psalms of lament that are full of anger, we acknowledge it within the body of Christ. In her influential essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Beverly Harrison writes: “The important point is that where feeling is evaded, where anger is hidden or goes unattended, masking itself, there the power of love, the power to act, to deepen relation, atrophies and dies.”[2]

Anger can be a powerful tool, a force for good and for evil. Bringing our anger to worship opens us to God who can work with and through it.

Beloved of God, we have been disrupted this year.
God is working through these disruptions. God will continue to work.
God meets you today in your body, with all your emotions, to draw you into worship and into the body of Christ.
God meets you to transform you into a passionate, zealous advocate of God’s justice.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.


2 Harrison, Beverly. “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love.”  Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics. Beacon Press, 1986, pp. 3-21.

[1] Thomas, Debie. “Not in God’s House.” Journey With Jesus, 28 February 2021.

[2] Beverly Harrison “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love.” From Making the Connection: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics. Beacon Press. September 1, 1986.

Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2021 – “Speaking the Truth in Love”

Second Sunday in Lent
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Daniel Grainger, Seminarian

Readings:  Genesis 17:1-7; 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

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

Up until this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry has been a rapid progression of healings, miracles, and teachings (in the form of parables). According to Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with the proclamation: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus wastes little time getting to the point, and the momentum of his ministry builds exponentially. There is energy and excitement surrounding Jesus which draws the admiration of thousands, but also the ire of religious leaders. And so, it doesn’t take long for the rumor mill to kick into high gear:
“Is he John the Baptist?”
“Is he the Elijah?”
“Is he one of the prophets?”
“Who is Jesus?”

Jesus asks his followers, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-29) Peter gives voice to what many are probably thinking: “You are the Messiah.” Similar to how we might look for a role model, a charismatic leader, or a hero to swoop in and save the day, many were eagerly looking to Jesus as the one who was anointed with God’s power and would save Israel, liberating them from their Roman oppressors. Jesus neither confirms nor denies his identity as the Messiah. In fact, “He sternly ordered them NOT to tell anyone about him,” (Mark 8:30) which only seems to intensify the situation. The anticipation is so palpable, you can almost taste it!

But THEN we come to today’s gospel reading and the tone changes to something more ominous: “… the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” (Mark 8:31). The murmurs begin: “Wait, what is this?  This can’t be right!  What is Jesus talking about?” This is the first time that Jesus speaks about his death and resurrection, and it seems so very different from what the disciples were anticipating. And to make matters worse, Jesus is being quite open about all of it.

Peter isn’t having it – he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. I imagine Peter said something like, “This isn’t right, Jesus – you are mistaken. The Messiah isn’t supposed to die.” Peter’s preconceived notions of who Jesus is do not align with what Jesus is saying. So, he rebukes or corrects Jesus. Peter denies the notion that suffering and death have any part in what Jesus is here to do for God’s people. 

Jesus’ response to Peter is jarring and harsh: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” (Mark 8:33). Then, Jesus ups the ante: “Those who want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

Not only is Jesus NOT conforming to their expectations, those who wish to follow Jesus will share in his suffering and death. This is probably not quite what Peter and the disciples had imagined. But Jesus loves them enough to tell them the truth: “This is what it means to be my follower: losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel.” “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” (Mark 8:34)

It’s a truth that leaves me feeling uneasy. How can suffering and death be good news for you and me when there is so much suffering and death in the world already? At times, I’m tempted to soften the blow – to find some interpretation that is easier to proclaim. For instance, perhaps the cross is just a metaphor for the hardships we will endure by living counter-culturally? But just like that, I realize that I, like Peter, am rebuking and correcting Jesus.

The truth is, the invitation to take up one’s cross would not be interpreted metaphorically by Jesus’ followers or the crowd. The cross was not some abstract concept for them but a reality – it was an instrument of suffering and death used against those who upset the status quo of the powerful. Jesus meant what he said: “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The truth matters and has the power to change lives, sometimes in ways we don’t always expect or even want. In fact, the truth can be a difficult pill to swallow, especially when it conflicts with our own understanding of who we are and what is going on in the world. As a country, we continue to struggle with the truth of our own history – who we are and what we’ve done. Like Peter, we may have our preconceived notions of what’s up, a rose-colored view of our nation’s history. Yet recent efforts to uplift the experience of those who are black, indigenous, and people of color – to shed light on their ongoing struggle for justice – have revealed a difficult and painful truth: We are captive to the sin of white supremacy and cannot free ourselves.

Half a million deaths from COVID-19 confront us with the reality that our well-being is deeply connected to our neighbors. Like Peter, we are tempted to deny the reality of such suffering and death. During this pandemic, our culture’s self-made, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps individualism has had dire consequences for the most vulnerable among us, and has revealed a hard truth: We have NOT loved our neighbors as ourselves. As God’s people, we continually fail to trust God’s promises, seeking instead to earn God’s love on our own. Yet the brokenness and suffering of the world reveals the truth: We sin against God in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and even by what we fail to do.

But God loves us enough to tell us the truth.

There’s this great line from the TV show Parks and Rec that used to run on NBC that I will jokingly say to my friends when I’m giving advice or suggestions: “You can trust me because I don’t care enough about you to lie.” In reality, I think it’s safe to say we tend to be a bit more receptive to the truth when it is given to us by someone we trust because we know that, no matter how difficult their words may be, they care about us.

The hard truths – the kinds that set us free – are spoken from a place of love. Yet, God’s love for us is a difficult thing to fathom. And so, Jesus reveals the truth of God’s love for us in the cross. God knows what it means to stumble under the weight of sin and death, what it feels like to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, what it means to lose everything.

God loves us enough to tell us the truth. And even if we can’t understand the truth, or won’t accept it, God does not give up on us. In fact, Jesus will foretell his death and resurrection two more times in Mark’s gospel; and each time his disciples will demonstrate their failure to understand or accept what he is saying. And yet, in the end, these flawed individuals are the people Jesus calls, equips, and sends out to share and show God’s faithfulness and love for all people.

As followers of Christ, our call to proclaim the gospel means learning to hear and speak difficult truths. This is not easy, for it means facing our sins and the real ways we have perpetuated suffering and injustice in the world. We are called to speak the truth in love, even when it is not easy or convenient; for in Christ we trust that the Holy Spirit is present and working to bring about new life, even in the places we least expect it or least want it.

God loves us enough to tell us the truth.

As we follow the Lenten road and Jesus’ journey to the cross, the grace of God empowers us to hear and speak the truth in love, for the sake of a world in need of something new.

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.

[2] Ibid.