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.


[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.


[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.

“NEIGHBORS HELPING NEIGHBORS” Donations Needed for Head Start

  • Families of seven immigrant children, ages 3 and 4, are unable to provide transportation for them to attend Head Start.

  • The Immigration Working Group of the Peace and Justice Center invites you to help with the children’s transportation costs via EARL through a donation to the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Fund, managed by the Decorah United Church of Christ.

  • The EARL transportation cost per child is $20 a week or $80 a month, a total of $560 a month for all 7 children.

  • Donations can be made online at or by check, payable to Decorah UCC, with Neighbors Helping Neighbors Fund in the memo line. Mail checks to Decorah UCC, PO Box 470, Decorah, IA 52101.

Sermon for Sunday, January 31, 2021 – “The Author of All, the Liberating Authority”

Fourth 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.

Those in the synagogue were astounded and amazed at Jesus, for he taught as one having authority.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about authority, pondering which authorities, and even which authors, I can trust.

I ask this about the news I consume. Is this writer offering information or opinion? What’s the ideological bent here? Am I getting diverse perspectives? What sources provide the most reliable, authoritative news? This question about authors also relates to our Good Shepherd Antiracism Task Force work. The Task Force has committed to learning together, but who are trustworthy guides for us?

And as crazy as it sounds, I’ve even been wondering which authors to trust about how best to breathe. I kid you not! This week I was part of a Zoom pastors’ meeting and the presenter said that most of us breathe in ways that aren’t helpful. We breathe through our mouth and don’t use the built-in air filter God gave us in our nose. We breathe in rapid shallow ways that can increase anxiety and impact our sleep.

This presenter went on to give us advice about breathing, but it was different from the way my yoga teachers encourage me to breathe, and that’s different from what’s suggested by authors of contemplative prayer, and different still from other articles on health and well-being I’ve read lately. Of course, these varied approaches to breathing all have good and varied goals, but which one is best for me now? The presentation on breathing was supposed to reduce stress, but it didn’t really do that for me this week. So many perspectives and now I can’t even breathe right.

In this internet age we have access to so many authors, so many authorities, so much information. We can learn and be guided by people all around the world. Our perspectives and world-views can be shaped in such varied ways. That is a blessing and a curse. Leaders, teachers and organizations that used to take their authority for granted must now earn trust. We’re held to account for how we use power. Many people are taking a good long look at the pitfalls of institutions, noticing corruption, racism, systemic oppression. We have a healthy skepticism of authority. All of that can be really helpful. Yet this means the responsibility for choosing who to trust and how to live falls even more heavily upon each one of us as individuals.

These days, all individuals can easily become authors using the tools of social media. We can publish our thoughts widely. We can claim authority based on our own experiences. It can be really liberating and helpful to speak our voices out into the world. Yet when we’re all speaking, asserting, and opining, it can also get really loud and angry. Uninformed opinions start to carry as much weight as evidence, research and facts. Last May so many said, “It’s time to get back to normal”, as if their word was authoritative. Yet just because I want the virus to be under control doesn’t mean it actually is. The loudest, most persistent, persuasive individual voices can become tyrannical.

Actually, all of us can become tyrannical because all of us are captive to sin. We’re not so different from the man in the synagogue who was bound by an unclean spirit. The unclean spirits of pride, arrogance, racism, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, ableism plague us all in different ways. Evil has power over us. We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. And we don’t even know how to breathe right.

Into all this chaos, another voice speaks – a voice with true liberating authority. Jesus speaks with the very voice of God, the voice that authored all of creation. In the beginning, when the earth was just a formless void of chaos, God spoke creation into being. God said let there be life and there was life. That same voice spoke through Moses and the prophets to set God’s people free from Egypt and Babylon, to bring new life out of chaos again and again.

When Jesus was baptized, that voice announced, “You are my beloved.” The heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended upon Jesus. And then that day in the synagogue, Jesus spoke with the very voice of God to call out the unclean spirit and free the man. Jesus used his own authority not for his own gain but to liberate a person in need.

This voice still speaks today.

God speaks through scripture, sermon, sacraments and song to each of us, to you.
God speaks to name and call out all the sin and evil that has us bound.
God speaks to announce: You are my beloved and you are forgiven. Nothing can separate you from me.

You are free, now go set others free. Use your power, your voice, your life to serve others to help them know that they, too, are loved and forgiven.

As Pr. Aimée Frye Appell writes:

“Among the many voices clamoring for our service, only one clamors to serve us. Only one authority, the One whose voice spoke the world into being, offers to relinquish power, stand with the exploited, and work for justice and redemption. The author of the universe frees us to serve God and the world God loves.” (From Sundays and Seasons: Preaching.)

Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes [on his blog Unfolding Light] puts it this way. He writes:

“Let [God’s] word cut into you.
Not a proposition you should agree with,
not a doctrine to believe,
but a revelation that astounds
with authenticity that rings,
a seeing of your soul,
an opening that draws you in,
a pool you look deep into until you fall.
With love that overrules any authority on this earth,
let it take your breath away,
and give you new breath.
Let it uncover something in you.
Let it, with authority, ask of you.
Let it author a new story in you.”

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.