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. 

Sermon for Sunday, November 12, 2023   Twenty-fourth Sunday after  Pentecost STEWARDSHIP SUNDAY

“A Spiritual House Built on Christ”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read scripture for the day.


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

This passage has some weighty and powerful images. Christ is described as a living stone, a cornerstone of faith, but also as a stone that can make people stumble, a rock that can make people fall.

What comes to mind when you think about stones? They can bring such beauty to our world. We see this in the bluffs around Decorah and in the work of local stonemasons. Stone memorials often help us honor our blessed dead, those we remember this Veteran’s Day weekend and so many others. Stones can provide shelter and comfort and cause us to stumble and fall. As people, we throw stones at others, literally and metaphorically.

1Peter calls us living stones. This speaks of the capacity we all have:

to harm others and to shelter,

to tear down and to honor,

to obstruct and to build up.

What will we, as living stones, do with such weighty power and responsibility? We’re called to come to Christ to be built into a spiritual house. That is what a congregation can be – a spiritual house made up of living stones, built on the cornerstone of Christ.

That is what you are, Good Shepherd. There is room here for you, for others, to be welcomed, embraced, healed, transformed. Within this spiritual house there is rest; there is nourishment; there is conviction and challenge. There are mirrors that reflect back each person’s intrinsic goodness and reveal sins. Those mirrors are encountered in worship and in relationship with others. Here you are assured that your sins cannot hold you down. You belong to Christ who releases you from the press and weight of them. You are sent out to be faithful living stones – to use your power in community in ways that will shelter, comfort and honor others in the world.

I’m so grateful for the spiritual house that is Good Shepherd. Christ is your cornerstone. The Spirit will continue to form and shape and build this spiritual house.

You’ve done a lot of important work recently on the physical house for the mission of this congregation. Back in 2017, you engaged in a process of listening, asking, “How do the buildings and spaces help us serve God and others? How could they help us serve God and others in new ways?” As a result of that listening, you’ve done important physical projects to help you live out your mission. And you’ve become carbon neutral!

This has been essential and important work. Yet I’m grateful that there have also been many opportunities for you to be built up as a spiritual house, to tend to life together in Christ. The racial justice work is one example of this. That Statement is a mirror that reflects the intrinsic dignity of all God’s people and the way all Americans are harmed by the lie of white supremacy. The good news of Jesus works to liberate us all from this crushing lie and to rebuild the church into a home for all.

Within Good Shepherd, you’ve also addressed how you live out your mission together. Changes to the Council and committee structure are strengthening the foundation of this house. And thanks to the work of the Stewardship Committee, you’re living into new ways of being a spiritual house through the Flock Ministry. Being part of a Flock and part of a larger spiritual house, asks you to let go of focusing on your own piles of rocks, whatever those may be, and to instead offer yourselves for something larger.

You are living stones, part of a beautiful spiritual house. Together as God’s people, you are a temple of God’s presence and a way God is known in the world. God has given you a strong foundation for hope with Christ Jesus.

Today you are invited to give generously to the mission of the spiritual house that is Good Shepherd and to our larger ELCA. As God’s people, we’re invited to give because generosity is good for us. The practice of giving forms us into grateful and generous people. Jesus says where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. We shape our hearts and our lives by how we choose to use our money and our time. Giving also helps us to trust that God will provide and to experience abundance.

We are also invited to give generously as congregations because we can do more together to shelter, honor, and comfort others. This is certainly true for us as part of the ELCA. Together as the ELCA we’re accompanying God’s people in the Holy Land, Ukraine, the Middle East, South Sudan, on the Southern Border, and in so many other places through our Lutheran Disaster Response. Through our Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service we’re helping to welcome others into shelter and safety. Our Lutheran Social Services ministry helps families to stay together in their homes; and our ELCA World Hunger ministry works to help all people have enough to eat.

Good Shepherd gives 26% of the operating expenses to ministry beyond the congregation. This supports our vital ELCA work as well as local work like the Decorah Community Food Pantry, legal clinics for immigrants, and local AMMPARO work accompanying migrant families. I’ve loved giving to Good Shepherd knowing that as I do, I’m giving to so many vital ministries that I value. When you give to Good Shepherd, you can know that you are helping to build up a worldwide house of refuge and shelter.

You are a living stone, part of a spiritual house, with Christ as your strong foundation.

God is with you and God is at work through you.

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


Sermon for Sunday, November 5, 2023   Twenty-third Sunday after  Pentecost ALL SAINTS SUNDAY

“Present to the Pain”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  

 Decorah, Iowa


Click here to read scripture for the day.


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

These words, often called the beatitudes from the Latin word for blessing, are incredibly counter-cultural. Australian pastor and poet Nathan Nettleton says, “If we were to write the beatitudes that we seem to be living by, they would sound something more like this:

Blessed are the comforters, those who distract us or medicate us or entertain us into a state of blissful numbness so we can avoid mourning and pain, for they will turn a huge profit.

Blessed are those who compulsively and excessively satisfy their every hunger and thirst, for they will keep the economy ticking along very nicely, thank you.

Blessed are those who take mercy for themselves, but who in the face of anyone else’s wrong- doing, argue that we must be tough and make an example of transgressors — for they will always be ahead in the opinion polls.”

One thing that distinguishes those beatitudes from those of Jesus is how we’re invited to engage the painful realities of life. Our culture encourages us to do all we can to avoid pain: eat, drink, spend, escape. Steer clear of people who make you feel uncomfortable. Avoid conflict. Turn that frown upside down. It could be said, “Blessed are those who don’t have to deal with pain for they will live the good life.”

Yet, Jesus calls blessed those who are hurting, long suffering, passionate for righteousness, striving for peace, and persecuted for doing the right thing. These types of people all have one thing in common. They are identified by pain – by their own pain or by their engagement with the world’s pain. They’re not the well-off, the wealthy, the lucky, but rather those marked by pain. And Jesus says they are blessed. Jesus directs our attention to the places of deep need and struggle, to those wrestling with it all. He says look, notice. God blesses, honors, esteems, and sees those who are in pain.

God has chosen to be identified with the pain of the world. This is radical. Often, we think pain means we’ve been abandoned by God. People and places scarred by pain are often described as godforsaken. When things are going well, we think God has blessed us; when things fall apart, we often don’t know what to think about God. In the beatitudes, Jesus teaches that God has chosen to bless and to be with those who face suffering, that God has chosen to be in pain. Jesus teaches this and then demonstrates this by his death on the cross.

In the cross we see that God has entered the pain of the world. God has chosen not to avoid or minimize suffering, but to fully engage it for the healing of all creation. God is so very present amidst suffering – in the hospital room, funeral home, war zone, refugee camp, detention center. Many of us have found that to be true in our own lives. We’ve known God’s presence most fully in times of grief or when we’re walking with people who are in need. We’ve cried out, “Where are you God”, and find, in time, that God is right there with us. God is in the pain working healing and new life. We can’t always feel it, but God is there. God’s presence is the blessing we all need; it is the blessing we are given in Christ Jesus.

When we see that God is in pain, this gives us an important way to view and engage the world.

Rather than seeing the needs of our neighbors as a nuisance or something to be pitied, we can recognize that need is a place to meet God and join God. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by all the hurt in our world, we can trust that God is at work in the suffering, and that God gives us what we need to join that work. Rather than offering charity because we’re so blessed and should give to those less fortunate, we can be present with people in need, yearning together for the blessing of God’s healing presence.

This is how we become pure in heart, merciful peacemakers who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This is how we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. This is how we live as God’s people together – by entering into the pain of the world. Being present is the most important thing we can do for those who are suffering. It’s how we offer a blessing to them, how we help make God’s blessing to them known. We can’t be physically present with the people of Gaza and Israel right now. Yet through our ELCA, we participate in a ministry of accompaniment, being present in this place of generational trauma.

Our Peace Not Walls campaign connects ELCA members to our companions in the Holy Land and promotes dignity, full respect for human rights, healing and reconciliation. With our Palestinian Lutheran partners, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, we accompany Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims working together for peace with justice. The Peace Not Walls campaign is providing regular updates and steps we can take to accompany God’s people in this time. We can keep our hearts open, we can pray, we can advocate as you have the opportunity to do today during the Fellowship Hour.

It is brutally hard to be in pain, to witness pain, yet God is in pain.

God is present with us in all the suffering of the world. God is present with us today.

God’s presence empowers us to stay present to the painful realities of this world, to move through pain, to heal, to be a healing presence for others.

God’s presence brings joy and hope for you, for us, in all things.

Let’s join in silent prayer and reflection.