Sermon for Sunday, December 17, 2023   Third Sunday of Advent

“Rejoice: Your Light Has Come”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read scripture passages for the day.


Beloved People of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus, the true light.

Three of our scriptures today focus on joy, on rejoicing. God knows we need some joy – not holiday cheer, not forced, pretend happiness, but joy. Joy is not dependent on external circumstances, notes author Henri Nouwen, “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death—nothing can take that love away.”

One person who helps others know joy through his love for them is Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest famous for his gang intervention programs in Los Angeles. He’s written two beautiful books about what he’s learned through the organization he founded, Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members. Boyle delights in the people that society has abandoned; he sees their goodness and rejoices in it.

Boyle often shares a story about one of these “homies” named Louie. He says, “Louie is kind of a difficult kid. He’s exasperating, and he’s whiny. And he works for me, although ‘work’ may be too strong a verb.” One day, after complaining about something again, Louie asks Boyle for a blessing, as the homies often do. So, Boyle reports, “I laid my hands on his shoulder and said, ‘You know, Louie, I’m proud to know you, and my life is richer because you came into it. When you were born, the world became a better place. And I’m proud to call you my son, even though’ — and I don’t know why I decided to add this part — ‘at times, you can really be a huge pain.’ And [Louie] looks up, and he smiles. And he says, ‘The feeling’s mutual.’”

Boyle reflects on this, “You want people to recognize the truth of who they are, that they’re exactly what God had in mind when God made them … we’re all called to be enlightened witnesses: people who, through kindness and tenderness and the focused attention of love, return people to themselves. And in the process, you’re returned to yourself. Maybe I returned Louie to himself, Fr. Boyle says, “but there is no doubt that he returned me to myself.”

(Transcript from interview with Fr. Greg Boyle on radio program On Being, with Krista Tippet).

In our Gospel reading for today, John serves as that kind of enlightened witness, a witness who seeks to return all God’s people to ourselves and to the light. The light is God made flesh in Jesus. The light brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the brokenhearted, comforts all who mourn. The light replaces our faint spirit with a mantle of praise. The light inspires songs of joy.

John points us to this light. He knows he’s not the light. He’s a witness, a voice crying out in the wilderness testifying to the true light. John knows who he is because he’s been enlightened by the true light. When he was just a baby in his mother’s womb, he leapt for joy when Mary arrived, pregnant with the baby Jesus. Even when he was hidden in the womb, the true light reached him, and he bore witness bringing encouragement to both his mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary as he leapt. As an enlightened witness, John calls all creation to prepare for the coming of the Savior. John calls us to repent, which means to turn, to return to God and to ourselves. John never forgets who he is. He isn’t the light. He is a witness to the light.

So, it is for us. We aren’t the light, but we are enlightened witnesses. The light of Christ reaches us, reaches you, in worship. And we are called to witness to the light at work in others, even when it is hidden. We’re called to notice the light at work in others with kindness, tenderness, and the focused attention of love. We’re also called to name the light we see, to tell people of the goodness we see in them.

Where have you seen the light at work in those around you, in loved ones and strangers? I see the light in this congregation during this time of transition. Even as the future feels uncertain, even as goodbyes and change are so hard, you’re offering blessings to me and welcome to Pr. Dave. You’re supporting, thanking, and praying for leaders and staff. You’ve stepped up your financial generosity for the shared work of bringing good news, binding up the brokenhearted, and comforting those who mourn. You are witnesses to me, to each other, and to the Decorah community. You are witnesses to the light. You are practicing joy.

So, you enlightened witnesses, receive a blessing on this day of joy: “I’m proud to know you, and my life is richer because you came into it. When you were born, the world became a better place.”

You may not always feel like it, but the light of Christ is replacing your faint spirit with a mantle of praise. Even when you sow seeds of hope with tears, you will reap with songs of joy.

You can rejoice and bear witness to this light.


 Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.



Sermon for Sunday, December 10, 2023   Second Sunday of Advent


Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read scripture passages for the day.


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

This time of year our hearts often turn toward home – whatever home means for us. As winter presses in, we tend to crave warmth and coziness, love and connection. This is a season that calls us home.

This time in the church year, Advent, is also a homecoming. We prepare our hearts, homes, and houses of worship for Jesus to be born again and live among us. We also look toward the end of time when God will make a home among mortals, when all creation will know God’s peace and well-being – God’s dream for the world. Advent calls us home to this hope, this promise, home to God.

Yet this time of year also reveals that we are all so very far from home, in the fullest sense of that word. We’re so far from the deep peace and harmony and well-being that we all need. Physical and emotional distances can feel magnified in December, as can grief and heartache. As winter sets in, we’re more aware of those who are unhoused and those whose houses are unsafe for whatever reason. That’s especially true this year amid the ravages of war and climate disasters.

Even as Advent calls us home, it also serves to highlight the many ways we’re living in exile,  cut off from our true home in God, from the life God longs for us all to know. Our first reading today, from the prophet Isaiah, speaks to that sense of exile. The people had turned away from God, so God had given them up to their chosen separation. They were conquered by the Babylonian Empire and sent into exile in Babylon. The city of Jerusalem and their holy temple were destroyed. The people were so very far from home and felt cut off from God.

How do you live and hope and pray when God and home feel so distant? At first the people dreamed of home and longed to return. But eventually many assimilated to life in Babylon. They grew comfortable and prosperous. They let go of hoping for something different, of yearning for home. The way back was perilous – full of rough places, uneven ground, valleys and hills. So, many of them chose to remain in Babylon even after they were free to leave. Their complacency kept them stuck in exile.

It’s easy for us to respond in similar ways – to be so shaped by the culture around us rather than God’s dreams, God’s kingdom.[1] Scholar Walter Bruggeman describes some ways we assimilate. Our identity and values become defined by how much and what we consume and where we stand on a few political hot button topics. We set our hopes on the rise of the stock market. We fill our ears with the constant cycle of “breaking news” rather than the words of God’s good news.

Other exiles in Babylon resisted assimilation but lived with only anger and despair. They knew they didn’t want to go along with a conquering, oppressive power but lost hope that things could ever change. Their despondency led them to remain in Babylon rather than set out on a difficult journey home.

What response do you notice in yourself in the face of all that is wrong in this world? Complacency? Anger? Despair? Maybe all of the above and all before coffee? In our scriptures today, God speaks to all these responses within us. God speaks through a voice crying in the wilderness saying to us, to you, “I have made way when it seems there is no way. I come to you even when you are stuck in complacency and despair.”

God’s Word clears obstacles and births faith in human hearts.

God’s Word stands when everything else crumbles.

God’s Word of conviction and comfort leads us home through the wilderness, leads us to keep hoping, praying and working for the day when God’s dream will be a reality for all creation.

The Word of God is the mother tongue of our homeland. Just as immigrants speak their native language to feel closer to their home, as we follow God through the wilderness, we’re reminded to return to our native tongue – to speak and sing of God’s goodness, God’s power, God’s love and justice, God’s dreams – so that we will not forget. These words and songs empower us to defy the powers of this world that seek to define us. Using the language of faith, praise, worship and prayer helps us to resist complacency and despair, to envision and then live another reality. 

During Advent, we’re reminded of our status as exiles and our longing for home. This helps to stay uncomfortable with the status quo, to not assimilate into the values of the dominant culture. And yet as we reflect on this exile, we do so as people of hope, expecting, trusting, that things will be different. 

God has made a way for us in Jesus.

God is here to lead us and all creation home.


Let’s join in a moment of silent prayer and reflection.

[1] Walter Bruggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, Westminster John Knox press, 1997, pg. 116f.

Sermon for Sunday, December 3, 2023   First Sunday of Advent

“Awake To God’s Dream”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read scripture passages for the day.


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

There are parts of scripture that feel like Jesus is encouraging us to be insomniacs. Keep awake, he tells us twice in our Gospel reading today. Keep watch, keep alert, you don’t want to be asleep on the job at evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn. Umm, thanks Jesus, many of us have enough trouble sleeping already these days. How long can I claim to be messed up by the end of daylight savings time?

Of course, Jesus isn’t literally prescribing a sleep hygiene routine. He’s calling us to be attentive and aware of  God’s eternal reign of justice and peace that is breaking into our world. God’s eternal reign is God’s dream for this world. So, in Advent, even as we’re called to keep awake, we’re also asked to be attentive to dreams. We’re called to step into the mystery and awe of God’s dreams and pray that they shape our reality.

In Advent, we hear from people who were shaped by God’s dreams. The prophets, the psalmists, John the Baptist, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, and the Magi—all were dreamers. Some of these folks were given dreams while they slept, others while awake. Yet they all received, discovered, and responded to God’s dreams for the world.

When has a dream shaped your reality? Maybe you’ve awoken from a nightmare that has lingered with you for hours or even days to come. Maybe you’ve dreamt music would play a large role in your life, so have studied, practiced and joined an ensemble to make that dream happen. Recently, I had a dream about Good Shepherd and this time of transition that has brought me deep peace. I was walking away from you going to preach at another congregation one Sunday. All of a sudden, I realized that I’d forgotten to line up pulpit supply, but people just stepped up to share their many gifts and worship was glorious. I could tell because I was watching it on YouTube while walking. Then I found myself entering a house and calmly helping a family to move into a new home. I awakened with a profound sense that this congregation would thrive in years to come and that my family and I would also thrive.

That dream has sustained me in all the emotions and tasks involved with making a big life change.

It has given me such hope for us all. In Advent, God’s people are given big, outrageous, hopeful dreams. Dreams of God tearing open the heavens to come near and address the brokenness of the world, of God’s face shining upon us and restoring us, of Jesus returning to bring God’s justice.

We’re given visions of low places lifted, rough places made plain, a path cleared for God to come to all people, the lowly lifted up and tyrants toppled.

Sometimes these Advent passages are interpreted as nightmarish warnings: Jesus is coming, be afraid, be very afraid. Yet the whole of scripture shows us that God’s dreams are profoundly loving and hopeful. Peace and justice will kiss; God will dwell among us; we will live in deep connection with God, all creation, and one another. This is God’s promised future for the whole cosmos. That’s why the strange Gospel passage from Mark today is such good news. It gives us a vision that the brokenness of this world is not our final reality. Trials and tribulations are not the end. Jesus is coming to make all things new, to bring God’s dreams into fullness.

These visions, these Advent dreams, can sustain us through tumultuous times. We pray to be shaped by them in how we live each day, how we use our gifts, how we spend, how we vote, how we show up for others in our community, our nation, our world. We also get to keep awake and pay attention to the ways Jesus is already present with us, already birthing God’s eternal reign of justice and peace. God is born among us as the baby Jesus. Jesus is present in word, water, song, bread and wine, wherever two or three are gathered in his name, and in those the world considers last and least. God is present when we wake in the night, when we’re haunted by nightmares, in times of change, when grief presses in, when loneliness stalks.

Together this Advent we will dream, and we will keep awake.

We will hope and act and serve in ways shaped by God’s dream.

We will pray, stir up your power and come, even as God is already so very present to us.


Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, November 19, 2023   Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost BAPTISMAL PROMISES DAY

“The Way of Love”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa


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

I’ve been thinking about this Sunday as a big baptism bash – a celebration of how this congregation lives in the gift of baptism. Parents are supported in keeping their baptismal promises to their children. New members are welcomed to live out their baptisms in community. Youth affirm their baptisms through the process of Confirmation. The baptism bash today gives us all the chance to reflect on our true identity, something that’s important anytime and especially during a time of transition for Good Shepherd, my family, and me.

In baptism God declares our true identity – beloved child of God. This happens for Jesus in his baptism. It happens as we are first baptized and as God draws us back to the waters and promises of baptism time and again. God speaks through scripture, through water and the word, through pas- tors called to proclaim on God’s behalf, and through the community. God speaks and acts in concrete ways to declare to you, “You are my beloved child.”

Baptism is not what first makes us God’s child. Every person on earth is God’s beloved child. We are all created in love, made in God’s image. God looks upon the whole human family and declares us good. God commits to loving each one of us. Yet God knows we struggle to believe that we are loved by God, to know that we are accompanied, held, cherished. So, God gives us the gift of baptism. God works in a way that we can feel and hear, through water and word, to proclaim over and over: You are my beloved child.

This identity is a gift. It’s also a calling – a calling to be defined first and foremost by God rather than anything else. We’re called to let our identity as God’s beloveds define the way we live, the way we relate to others. It’s not easy to fully live out the identity God has given us. There are so many other ways that the world defines us, that we define ourselves. We’re labeled by where we live – urban or rural, red state or blue; by what we read; how we get our news; where we shop; how we eat. We’re defined by our jobs, genders, races, sexual orientations, and politics.

Certainly, all of these things are important, yet none of them encompass the fullness of who we are. You are more than a vegan. He is not only a Republican. Your boss is not just a gay person. Your neighbor is more than a police officer. We are all so much more than any of these labels; they do not ultimately define us. We are mysteries beyond comprehension. We are wondrously and fearfully made.

Those other identities can’t provide us with ultimate meaning. They can become idols, false gods promising security, purpose and hope, yet leaving us empty. Find your people, find your tribe, we’re told, and you won’t be lonely. Discover your vocation and you’ll feel happy and purposeful. Maybe? Sometimes? These identities can also become weapons used against others, they can divide us, contributing to hatred and violence. It’s easy to say, other people do that, other people  are so wrong, so evil. Yet the seeds of this violence lie within each of us. We so often claim privileged status for our own identities and diminish the humanity of those who differ from us.

The voice of God cuts through all of this. In the face of all that seeks to define and claim, drive and divide us, the voice of God rings out to say, “You are my beloved.” AND, “They too are my beloved.” Every single person, even one who makes you so angry, is a beloved child of God. Every person, every politician who disgusts you is a beloved child of God. God loves them, God loves each of us, not because of what we do, how we vote, how we worship, but because of who God is and what God does. God has committed to love.

Love is not a warm fuzzy emotion that arises because someone is worthy. Love is an action, a commitment, a choice. God has chosen the way of love. God calls to live as beloved children of God by living in the way of love. Love does not mean having warm feelings for someone or being nice. Love does not turn a blind eye to injustice in order to avoid conflict.

Love seeks wellbeing for all people by working to disrupt everything that divides and diminishes us. Love challenges all the white supremacy in our nation because it harms God’s people, people of color and white people. Love renounces the sin and evil that makes us doubt that we are God’s beloved, the sin and evil that leads us to treat others as anything less than God’s beloved. Love is both humble and bold. As Bishop Michael Curry says, “It kneels before others who are loved by God yet stands with integrity and conviction.”[1]

We are created by Love, claimed by Love, called by Love. We are called to let Love define our identity and our actions. When we are unable to love, God draws us back to the waters and promises of baptism for confession, forgiveness, renewal.

People of God, in this time of transition, you have all that you need. Your identity as a congregation, your life together as God’s people, is grounded in the love of God.


You are God’s beloved people, God’s beloved children.


Let’s join in silent prayer and reflection.

[1] Bishop Michael Curry used this image in a conversation with Krista Tipped and Dr. Russell Moore hosted by the On Being Project.

Text of Council Update in This Time of Transition

November 19, 2023

Kris Peterson, Good Shepherd Congregation VP


Good morning! My name is Kris Peterson.  I currently serve as your Good Shepherd Vice President,  

I bring you Greetings and Peace this morning from your Good Shepherd Church Council..

In this season of transition, I want to assure you of the Council’s prayers for you, for one another, for our staff, for Pastor Amy, and as we commit to God our future. We pray for Pastor Amy and her family, with hearts of thanksgiving for her ministry among us, and for her own transition, even as she works with dedication born of love to smooth this transition for us. Thank you for your prayers for Good Shepherd, that we transition well, love and support one another, and continue to serve one another and others with ~  and flowing from ~  the gifts God has so richly given us.  

I speak to you this morning with a heart of gratitude for the abundance of gifts of this congregation.  You are living your faith as you serve in countless, quiet ways.  Thank you. 

Today I update you that the Nominations Committee is close to completing its work on congregational leadership nominations for 2024.  Thank you to all who have prayerfully considered accepting servant leadership roles at Good Shepherd.  We vote for this slate of nominations at our Annual Meeting on February 4, 2024.  

From all of us, I express gratitude to the Stewardship Committee for their meaningful leadership work in this fall’s Good Shepherd “Living Stones” campaign.  Thank you to all who have so generously responded, and to those of you who are finalizing your responses.

Our strong and talented staff serve us, organize us, and invite us.  Thank you, Brooke, Kelli, Erica, and Tristan ~ and to the people of Good Shepherd for prayers, support, responsiveness, and encouragement of our staff.  Led and strengthened by the Spirit, Good Shepherd carries forward the mission of the Church .

As the Council proceeds in faithful, and orderly work, we will keep our church family informed in this process of transition


To that end:


Last Tuesday night, 11/14/23, the Congregation Council, Pr. Amy, and all the staff met with Pr. Liz Bell of the NE IA Synod.   Pr. Liz will be working with us throughout the call process. Pr. Bell knows and respects the core beliefs and commitments of Good Shepherd, and I assure you she listened well to us. She heard us.

We are proceeding in focus and orderly manner the steps of transition.

  1. The staff, executive committee, and council are in discussion of the role of a transition team
  2. The synod has shared with the Good Shepherd Executive Committee the name of a potential intentional interim candidate who may possibly start serving us soon. A meeting date with that candidate has been set in a week and a half.  We will keep you informed.  I can assure you the bishop of the candidate for intentional interim and our bishop and Pr. Bell feel that this is a good match.  While this does not work like a “dating” app … we are optimistic.
  3. The Executive Committee and Council will be at work on establishing a Call Committee as per our Constitution. A Call Committee will be formed by the Annual Meeting on Feb. 4.  Pastor Liz Bell will be at work with them through the process of call.
  4. Pastor Amy’s closing Sunday of ministry with us will be January 7th.  We will have a celebration of her ministry and our time together on January 7th.  

Dear people, Allow yourselves to feel all that you feel.  Share with one another.  Lift one another and Good Shepherd in your prayers and with your presence.   

And for today… May you enjoy the beauty of this day.  Go in peace in the Spirit of today’s worship, encouraged by the Word, strengthened by our Communion, and in the sure knowledge that God is Faithful.