Sermon for Sunday, January 13, 2019 – “The Power of Baptism”

Baptism of Our Lord
First Sunday after Epiphany
January 13, 2019
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. Amen.

Both our first reading and our Gospel reading today talk about fire and water. Each of these things can be so very lovely and so very powerful.

Many of my happiest memories involve water. A few years ago, I got to spend my late October birthday canoeing the Upper Iowa River with my spouse Matt. It was a brilliant, crisp day – pure gift before dark November blew in. The sky was robin’s egg blue with not a cloud in sight. The water reflected the color of the sky and sparkled with the sun. I felt so content on the beautiful river we get to enjoy here in Decorah.

Yet, this summer someone drowned in our river. And, that river wreaked so much destruction and heartache in the floods of 2008 and 2016, to name just a few years of flooding.

Water nourishes and renews us, helps us relax, lets us play.
Water gives life. We all pass through the waters when we are born.
Water can also kill and destroy.

The same is true for fire. Some of the most meaningful conversations in my life have been held around a fire. When I was a camp counselor, I was amazed at what campers would share in that setting. Kids who never sang anywhere would join in during campfire worship. Yet I’ve rarely felt as frightened as when I had to help evacuate campers when a forest fire came too close to camp. The smoke, the smell, the black sky were all so terrifying.

Fire provides warmth and light, a feeling of coziness. It nurtures intimacy and community. It has fueled so much innovation. It too can kill, ravage, destroy as we saw so dramatically in the Camp Fire last November.

Water and fire are beautiful gifts with tremendous power. We should not take them lightly. John the Baptist tells us that Jesus will baptize us with water, fire and the Holy Spirit. I think this means that being baptized into Christ Jesus isn’t something that we should take lightly.

Baptism isn’t just a lovely entrance rite, not just a sweet ceremony with an infant, or a rite of passage for a youth.

Baptism is not just a ritual. It is a way that our active, powerful God works in our lives and our world.

The images of water and fire also help us to see what God does for us through the gift of baptism.

With baptism, God does for us what water does. We pass through the waters to be reborn and named beloved children of God. We are given new life, we’re renewed and nourished. Baptism also involves drowning and destruction. Our sinful selves are drowned; we die to sin and are raised to new life. We are marked with the sign of the cross, the sign of death and new life.

Through baptism, God also lights a fire within us – a fire of justice and mercy. We’re told to let our light shine, to let our life bring the warmth of love – the fire of fierce compassion. We are also drawn into intimacy and community with Christ and the whole body of Christ on earth. Through baptism, God also burns away the chaff within us. We don’t just get to sit around the campfire sing- ing “Kumbaya”. We are convicted of sin and called to repent. All that is unfruitful and empty within us is burned away. This fire renews us the way a wildfire renews a natural landscape, the way a prairie fire sparks new growth.

We see that baptism does these things through the witness of scripture and through the witness of people and communities of faith throughout the ages who have experienced the power of baptism.

I know it’s hard to believe that a ritual can do all these things, especially a ritual that many of us experienced as infants. But it isn’t the ritual that does all this. It is the power of God working through water and fire and the Word. God uses these physical things to get through to us and not just when we are first baptized. Baptism is a life-long gift. God uses these signs to get our attention, to wake us up, to draw us back to God – over and over again. God works through water, fire, the Spirit and the Word throughout our lives to assure us of what God has done and is doing for us.

This is why we keep the font central in our worship space and focus our attention there as we con- fess our sins and remember our baptisms.

It is why we light the paschal candle at baptisms and funerals – this candle that is first lit in the fire of the Easter Vigil. This candle reminds us that when we pass through the fires and flames of sin and even death, we will not be overwhelmed; God will bring us into new life.

If you haven’t been baptized, know that God is still at work in your life as well. God is always at work through the Holy Spirit. Yet, baptism is such a helpful gift for our lives of faith. It gives us physical assurance and physical reminders of God’s activity for us. It is so powerful to know, in our bones, that God has claimed us through water, fire and the word of promise, and that God will not let us go.

This week, I invite you to pay close attention to water. After you receive communion today, go to the font and use the water to make the sign of the cross on your forehead. During the rest of the week, when you shower or wash your face, remember the power of God to drown your sinful self and give you new life and your true identity – beloved child of God. Say to yourself – I am beloved,

I am forgiven, I am reborn.

I also invite you to pay attention to fire. Today, notice the fire burning on the paschal candle. Let yourself be drawn into the beauty, intimacy and the warmth of that fire. And, pay attention to what the fire needs to burn away within you.

During the rest of the week, notice what fire can do as you light gas burners on your stove or hear the combustion engine in a car fire up. Notice what fire can do and reflect that the tremendous power of fire doesn’t hold a candle to the power of Almighty God.

That amazing power is at work in you – let it burn, let it shine.  Let it empower you to live out the promises we make when we affirm our baptisms: 
To live among God’s faithful people,
To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper,
To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
To serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and
To strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

God is at work today and always through the word and the Spirit, through water and fire, to do powerful things for you. God is at work to do powerful things for this congregation.

Beloved, you are reborn – let your light shine.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Epiphany, January 6, 2019 – “How God Guides Us”

Epiphany of our Lord
January 6, 2019
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.

Christmas carols and nativity sets make it appear so simple. The wise men just follow the west- ward leading star right to Bethlehem. Almost as good as a GPS, complete with a catchy soundtrack.

I think you know it, join in:
Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light

If only we had a star guiding us in the right way to go. If only we had such clear direction as we try to follow Jesus as we tackle big issues in our lives, our congregation and our world.

Except when you take a closer look at the story, you notice that the wise men don’t have a star right in front of them all the way lighting the path to Bethlehem.

In fact, they don’t actually make it to Bethlehem at first. They show up in Jerusalem saying they have seen the star at its rising. Only when they leave Jerusalem, heading towards Bethlehem, only then does the star go ahead of them to the spot where the child lies. They see the star at its rising but then they have to figure out where to go.

They do get really close geographically, Jerusalem is just 9 miles from Bethlehem, but it was worlds apart in every other regard. Bethlehem was a tiny peasant village. Jerusalem was the seat of power, the place to find Roman rulers and Rome’s puppet king, King Herod.

Jerusalem is where you’d expect to find a king. So, it makes sense that the wise men show up there first.

They also likely use scripture to get there. Scholar Walter Brueggemann points out the wise men had probably heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, the words we just heard as our first reading.

They’d likely heard them from Jews who’d been taken into exile in Babylon and then continued to live in the lands east of Israel. Isaiah speaks God’s promise to Jerusalem that: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn … A multitude of camels shall cover you, they shall bring gold and frankincense.”

So, as the wise men try to find a new king of the Jews, it makes sense to go to Jerusalem and take rare spices and gold.

They don’t just follow a star. Intuition, reason and scripture probably help them to get close to their destination.

Except when the wise men arrive in Jerusalem, they don’t meet a new king. They meet an old king who is afraid, and all Jerusalem with him. Questions about a newborn king threaten the status quo.

The old king gathers the chief priests and the scribes and from them, the wise men learn a new scripture. They learn verses from the prophet Micah that indicate they should look for the child in little Bethlehem. The newborn king has not been born in the seat of power, but in a peasant village.

The evil King Herod directs them to Bethlehem. He has malicious intent, he is already plotting to the kill the child, but he does get them headed in the right direction again. Then, once they leave where they expected to find the king, then the star goes before to guide them and they find Jesus.

Yet still, their journey is not complete. They must pay attention to their sense that something is off with King Herod – an intuition that is confirmed by a dream from God. They must find another way home to avoid colluding with the evil Herod.

All this means we have much more in common with the wise men then it might first appear. The wonderful Christmas carols and nativity sets don’t tell the full story. A life following Jesus, a life guided by God, is more complicated.

The wise men set out seeking what is good, following in trust without a lot of direction, trying to respond to promises in scripture – and they end up in the wrong place.

They hear a new scripture and are told new things and must discern what to do. The scriptures seem to give conflicting messages. There is a lot of fear and anxiety; they must make hard deci- sions.

They have to let go of their assumptions about power and rulers, let go of their disappointment about ending up in the wrong place, let go of their first understandings of scripture. They have to change course to avoid evil. This all sounds a lot like a life of faith.

The wise men’s journey does involve paying attention to how God works in nature and in dreams.

But, it also involves wrestling with scripture, testing their experiences, analyzing reality, gleaning good from difficult situations, navigating difficult people. They must use the gifts God has given them in scripture, tradition, community, their lived experience and their own hearts and minds.

These are our challenges as well. In some ways, scripture gives us very clear guidance. The prophet Micah, the prophet who helped the wise men get to Bethlehem, provides other important guidance for Jews and Christians. He says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And Jesus says, quoting the Old Testament, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Scripture is clear about what God wants us to do.

But scripture doesn’t give specific guidance for all the particular decisions we need to make as individuals and communities. Instead, we are called to do the work of discerning, in our context, how we will do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, and how we will love God and neighbor. God has entrusted us with the freedom and responsibility to do this discernment.

We will not always handle this responsibility perfectly – things won’t always go well; at times we’ll find ourselves in Jerusalem when we should have gone to Bethlehem. We will encounter evil both within ourselves and in the world around us. We will have to wrestle with the guidance God gives.

When things don’t work out well, it is not necessarily a sign from God that we are on the wrong track. The wise men’s story shows us that even when we are faithfully following there will be struggle, mistakes and hardship. Yet, we can trust that God is present to lead us. God is at work through all those gifts given to the wise men and given to us – through prayer, nature, scripture, community, reason and experience.

We have what we need to follow where God leads, to seek the good and refuse to collude with evil, to take another road when needed, to rejoice and worship as the wise men did when they encountered Jesus.

We have what we need to love God and others, to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly through all that we face.

Thanks be to God.

Sermon for Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24, 2018 – “Room for You”

Christmas Eve 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the night.

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

Mary placed the baby Jesus in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

Throughout the centuries our imaginations have been sparked by that line – “there was no room for them in the inn.”

We’ve been asked to picture Mary and Joseph dragging themselves into town waiting at the inn with bated breath for someone to bring them in from the cold. Sometimes the innkeeper shouts angrily into the night, “no room, go away!” Other times he is kind and gentle saying, “There’s no room, but you can stay in the stable out back.”

Scripture itself makes no mention of an innkeeper; and the word “inn” is better translated as guest room. It’s most likely that in Joseph’s family home the space shared with guests was the part of the house where the animals slept and ate. That’s the kind of space where they ended up – where the animals slept and ate.

We can’t know for sure, and don’t need to. What’s important to know is that there was no room for Mary and Joseph. And we know what that’s like. We know what “no room for you” sounds like, what it feels like.

Our imaginations have been sparked by that line throughout the years because it resonates so deeply with our own experiences.

Sometimes it seems there is no room for us in our family, school, work place, community, church – no room to be ourselves, to let down our guard. There’s pressure to contort ourselves in order to fit in, to feel at home and safe.

Sometimes we feel there is no room to welcome anyone else into our lives – just no space to deal with their quirks and issues and demands. After all, there are so many demands upon our time these days. Our lives are so very full of obligations and expectations, health concerns and financial worries, or the intense ache of loneliness. We so often feel pressed and squeezed with no room to breathe easily or rest.

These days we also regularly hear that there is no room in our country for immigrants and refugees. People fleeing for their lives are told, “No room, you are not welcome.”

There was no room for Mary and Joseph, no room for the baby Jesus. A powerful man’s words created upheaval for common people who had to crowd into the towns in order to be counted; there was no room for Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

And yet, Jesus came anyway. Jesus was born among us and placed in an animals’ feeding trough.

Jesus didn’t wait to come to us until there was a perfect place, a convenient time. He didn’t say, “You’d better make room for me in your heart or I’m not showing up for you.”

Jesus arrived anyway – into a crowded town, to parents who had to make do. Jesus came into our world and in this way, made space for us all.

Jesus’ birth assures us that God is with us, we have a place with God. God doesn’t ask us to contort ourselves in order to belong. Instead, God makes a home with us. God comes to us in Jesus and says, “I am with you. You belong to me.”

Jesus’ birth brings good news of great joy. We have a savior who brings us in from the cold and into the very heart of God. There is room for you and me and all people in the heart of God.

We need not be afraid – we need not live in that tight, constricted space of fear. It isn’t up to us to make things good and right with all our working and worrying and to-do lists. We are not defined by our finances, our health, our status. We need not fear other people. Jesus comes to draw us all into God’s heart and into God’s promised future for our world.

In this promised future, there is space for all people to live in peace and harmony, knowing that we belong to God and to one another.

The good news that we are embraced in this way creates space within us – space to offer others the welcome we have received, space to live in peace with others.

Tonight, Jesus comes to you, again, no matter how cluttered your head, your heart, your life may feel. Jesus comes to you whether you feel you belong here or not. Jesus comes to bring you in from the cold.

Jesus arrives making space for you to breathe deeply and know that you are loved. Jesus arrives with the assurance that you need not be afraid; you do have room to welcome others.

So tonight, rest and breathe deeply in this space given to you. Listen to the good news the angels sing for you:

“Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Savor all this and ponder it in your heart.

A savior is born for you this night.  Good news of great joy for you, for all people.

Thanks be to God.

Reflection for Sunday, December 23, 2018 – “The Power of Song”

Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2018
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.

In Mary’s great song, memory, hope and courage intertwine. She sings of what God has already done, even as she eagerly awaits what God will do through Jesus. And, it seems, singing gives her the courage to participate in God’s work of turning the world around.

Singing is such a powerful act of hope and resilience. Singing counters intimidation and evokes courage. We see this throughout history: in the early church, the Civil Rights Movement, the sing-ing that helped bring down the Berlin Wall, to name just a few. I also see this every time Brooke, Jutta Anderson and I go to lead worship at the Wellington Place nursing home.

There’s a beautiful resident there who always tells us how blessed she is by the chance to hear Brooke’s music and join in song. This dear woman has known deep suffering; she has been a widow for almost forty years. She endures extreme pain each day. Her daughters live far away and are suffering with severe pain themselves.

Yet when she joins in song with us, she gets to remember and proclaim God’s faithfulness. Her hope is renewed. She is given the courage to persevere in the face of sorrow and struggle, to defy the suffering that would keep her down. Memory, hope and courage intertwine. She is lifted up. Her face beams with radiance and joy.

This dear woman is Mary as she proclaims God’s faithfulness and sings her hope. She is also Elizabeth for she offers blessing, welcome and encouragement to Brooke, Jutta and me as we bear Christ in the worship service.

Like this radiant woman, all of us are given hope as we raise our voices in song. We join with the church throughout time, with Mother Mary, Martin Luther King, Jr., and this saint at Wellington Place; and together we defy the power of suffering and evil to keep us down. We stand against everything that would intimidate us and overpower us to say, “You do not have the last word.” God is faithful. God keeps promises. God is turning the world around. We sing and we are lifted up. We find the courage to join God’s work.

Yet sometimes we don’t even have the strength or courage to enter the song. Sometimes the song within us cannot be unleashed until another person welcomes and blesses us, the way Elizabeth did for Mary. Sometimes we need to do that for others.

This is what we do together as the body of Christ when we gather for worship each week. We receive welcome and blessing, and our very presence offers welcome and blessing to others.

Together we find the courage to enter the song.
Together our songs are unleashed.
We need one another.

We need to join our voices together in order to remember God’s faithfulness, nurture our hope and find the courage we need.

So, let us sing.

Sermon for Sunday, December 16, 2018 – “What Then Should We Do?”

Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

First Reading:  Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6; Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7; Gospel: Luke 3:7-18

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

Apparently, John didn’t get the memo on the need for civility and calm, balanced discourse. “You brood of vipers,” he rants, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He sounds like God’s prophets of old and like a lot of people on Facebook these days.

John the Baptist has a sense of urgency, an urgency many of us feel about the state of the world right now. This is no time for complacency. Things need to change.

John makes it clear that the change needs to come within us first.
We need to repent and live in God’s ways of justice and mercy.
We need to bear good fruit.
Yet this is not work we can do on our own.
We need God.
We need God to deal with the evil in each of us.
We need God to bring an ax to what is preventing us from bearing good fruit – all the weeds that have grown as tall as trees within us.
We need God to separate the wheat from the chaff in our lives and then burn away the chaff.

This is what John says God will do in Jesus and what God will do at the end of time. It is what we need but it is also a bit frightening.

It seems those first crowds to hear John the Baptist were also frightened by all this. “What then should we do?” they ask.

And John’s answer is a bit surprising. In the midst of his extreme rhetoric, John gives simple, direct answers. He tells the crowds: share what you have. He tells the tax collectors: be fair. And the soldiers: don’t bully, be satisfied with what you have. Share, be fair, don’t bully, you have enough.This sounds like what we learn in kindergarten.

And, this is surprising language from a radical prophet in the wilderness who wore camel skin and ate locusts and wild honey. Given how he lived and preached, we might expect John’s instructions to be more radical – more like, “Give away all your clothes, you don’t need coats, you can wear a camel skin like me.” Instead he says if you have two coats, give one away and share your food. It’s also a bit surprising how John addresses tax collectors and soldiers. They are working with the oppressive Roman Empire; they are preying on their own people. Many in the crowd are probably shocked that John is even speaking to them – tax collectors should be ostracized, soldiers should be avoided.

And, if he must address the scum working for Rome, you’d think he’d say something like, “Renounce everything Roman, become pacifists and live in the wilderness with me.” Yet he doesn’t tell them to stop being tax collectors, to stop being soldiers. He simply tells them to not charge too much, not extort, and be satisfied with what they earn.

What then can we do? Share, be fair, don’t bully, be content. This is not extreme, heroic stuff. It is stuff that each of us can do, whatever our life situation. We can do these things, we already do these kinds of things all the time.

These simple actions may not seem like much, but John’s answer to the fearful crowd is a powerful message for us in fearful times.

When we get overwhelmed by the evil within and around us, we can share a coat.
When so many voices tell us to be afraid, we can share food.
When we’re tempted to say that people with certain beliefs or political convictions are chaff and need to be burned away, we’re reminded to not bully others.
When we feel urgency about the state of the world, we can do small things in our daily life, no matter our job or life situation.

The actions John prescribes for us sound simple, but they can have a profound impact on us. They give us something to do to resist the power of fear. They open us up to other people. As we’re opened up, light gets in to help more good fruit to grow within us. We’re also brought into relation- ship with other people and it is in relationship with others that we’re confronted with our own anger, bigotry and indifference. As that happens, God works in us to cut out and burn away the weeds and the chaff.

These simple actions also remind us that repentance and our relationship with God are never just private, devotional things. Our personal faith is not for us alone but for the sake of the neighbor.

This time of year, we often focus on service and giving to others.

Sometimes we wonder if these simple actions are even worth it. Do they really do any good? Are they just ways of making ourselves feel better? John says no, these basic things matter for how we live in this time.

This is not to say that these small actions bring in God’s kingdom or that we should be complacent thinking we can do a few more random acts of kindness and everything will be good. These actions are to be paired with repentance, with turning to God and asking God to work in us.

Yet as we look to God to come and bring in the kingdom, these actions are some of the ways that God works in us and through us.

This Advent and this Christmas, may we join in simple acts of service and love; and may we know God’s purifying, renewing presence with us and with our world.