January 16, 2022, 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Decorah, IA – Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

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

Mary is troubled that the wine is gone and goes to her son about it. Jesus responds, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me.” I want to say, “I’m not sure I like your tone here young man.” Something may have gotten lost in translation, but Jesus sure sounds snippy to me!

I do wonder, though, if Mary might be blowing things out of proportion? Worrying about wine at a wedding seems awfully trivial when there are so many major problems in the world, then and now. That may be what Jesus is thinking when he says it isn’t his hour to reveal his glory. Maybe he’s anticipating bigger things- soon he’ll heal a man who is paralyzed, feed 5000, raise Lazarus from the dead, and then rise from the dead himself. Clearly, those things are more important than not enough wine at a wedding. Seems to me Jesus could sit this one out.

Yet Mary knows better. Mary knows that wine at a wedding is really important. Weddings are the one time the people in her community don’t have to work, don’t have to wonder if they’ll have enough for the next meal. Weddings are much needed respites from the toil and strain of life under Roman occupation. They are week-long celebrations of family, community, faith. Wine plays a central role; not because people are drunk all the time but because wine is the sign of a good harvest, of God’s abundance. Wine represents joy and gladness. It’s a way to show hospitality. So, if the wine runs out, it’s like the blessings of the whole event run out.

Mary knows, how important it is for her community to have some joy and gladness amid the struggles of their daily lives. I imagine she knows that deep in her bones. She knows what people who suffer deeply know joy has a way of defying the power suffering, of letting you rise above what wants to keep you down. Joy is a form of resistance. Besides, it sounds like this is just day 3 of 7 days with all her friends and relatives.  If the wine is gone already, it’s going to be a really long week. Mary knows people are gonna need some levity, some laughter, some joy.

So, Mary just ignores Jesus’ objection and tells the servants, “do whatever he tells you.” She is bold to ask for joy, to expect joy. Jesus responds. Ordinary water is turned into the best wine. Worry and scarcity do not prevail. Abundance and blessing flow.

This story becomes really significant the first of seven signs that Jesus performs to show his glory, according to the Gospel of John. It gets in the top seven with all those seemingly more important things like healing people, feeding 5000 and raising Lazarus from the dead. And the way the story is told in John, there are echoes of the resurrection too. The story begins “on the third day there was a wedding”, We’re supposed to hear the resonance there – to remember that on another third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. So, it turns out Mary is right (as mothers often are!) Wine at a wedding, joy in the face of suffering, is not so small. It is no less important than addressing the major problems in our world. Joy has a lot in common with resurrection.

Joy says to suffering, oppression, sorrow, and grief, you do not have the last word, you cannot keep us down, life and hope will prevail for us, for our world. Joy is a form of resistance.

Yet often it can feel like the wine of gladness and joy has run out – the jar emptied, the blessing depleted. I know so many of you feel like that right now. Thankfully it is not up to us to manufacture joy on our own, to make sure we always have a ready supply of what brings gladness.

We have a savior who uses ordinary things to give us the gift of joy. Bread and wine, water and word, the community of the church, silence and song, the gifts of creation. Jesus uses these gifts to assure us of God’s abundance, to shower us with God’s blessings, to nurture our joy. The joy Jesus that gives is not dependent upon our circumstances, not dependent upon our ability to feel happy or glad. We see it arise in the hospital room, at the funeral, after the natural disaster, in the prison cell.

The joy Jesus gives isn’t an individual gift either, it is given to the whole community. This means that even when joy seems out of reach for us personally, others can hold out hope for joy on our behalf, the way Mary did for the hosts of the wedding. We can do this for others, as well, when they are enduring depleting circumstances. We can ask for joy for them and trust in the hope of joy for them.

As followers of Jesus, the One who serves others by bringing joy, we are called to help others experience joy. As we do, we taste it ourselves. Service draws us into relationship with others, lets us engage in hopeful activity, and gives us a larger perspective- it brings joy. Joy is so essential, and God gives us joy in abundance.

Today, God comes to you in ordinary things to give you joy- God comes in the bread and wine of communion,  the peace shared, the promises spoken, God comes in the laughter of children, the music offered, the fresh snow, warm homes, worship that reaches you in your home.

God gives you and each of us these gifts so that together we can hope, together we can resist, together we can taste joy for one another and for our world.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Blessed be the memory of Haldis Kaasa

Haldis I. Kaasa – 1931-2022

Hadis Inger (Solem) Kaasa was born on May 19, 1931, in Aure, Norway. She died peacefully at the age of 90 on Wednesday, January 5, 2022, at Aase Haugen Senior Services Assisted Living where she had resided since 2017. 

Haldis is survived by her son Kai who resides in Garnavillo, Iowa, and many relatives in Norway. She was preceded in death by her parents, a sister and brother, and her husband Harris (1926-1983), a 1950 graduate and professor of religion at Luther College from 1953-55 and 1961-1983.

Haldis and Harris arrived in Decorah and at Luther College in 1953. Haldis studied Art and Scandinavian Studies, receiving a BA degree in 1981. She and Harris were long- time and active members of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

Private family graveside services will be held at a later date in the Brush Point Cemetery in Harlontown, Iowa. A full obituary is available at the Fjelstul Funeral Home website: https://www.fjelstul.com/obituary/haldis-kaasa

Blessed be the memory of Haldis Inger Kaasa

Sermon for January 2nd – Rev. Allie Scott

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Decorah, IA – Rev. Allie Scott 

Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 147:12-20, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18

I’m hesitant to say that God has a favorite Bible passage. I’m sure many of you do – I certainly do – but God, at the very least, might take issue with the idea that one of the many passages we read, one of the many genres available to us in our library of scripture, is favored above all others. 

The Christmas season, however, certainly does. This is the third service in a row in which this passage from the Gospel of John has been read. The word became flesh and dwelt among us: that’s the message of Christmas. 

But this time, while reading this heady, gorgeous passage, what I was struck with was not the large, overarching neoplatonist philosophies or the deep image contrasts between light and darkness, but a simple preposition: the word with. 

And as I thought about that little preposition, I realized something. Through that single word – the word with – our entire faith, and the instructions for how to live that faith – is described. 

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the word was with God. 

The Word was with God, and nothing came into being without God.

“The word became flesh and lived among us – lived with us.” 

This is what the prophets assured us centuries before: “Behold, the young woman will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” 

Our faith is built on the preposition with

And here’s the thing: so much of our world, and so much of our life of faith, has tried to base itself on the word for. Think about the Christmas season, when we are compelled to do things for others: cook for her, and buy presents for him, give to charity for them. And these are good, noble, generous actions. But they don’t cut to the heart of our faith, which ultimately is about restored relationships between ourselves, our God, and all of humanity. You can give a gift to someone and still have a gaping silence between you. You can give charity to the poor and still have no idea who they are or what matters to them. You can wear yourself out preparing a huge feast for your family and realize, after they left, you never actually got to spend time with them. For is a fine word, but it doesn’t dismantle resentment, and it doesn’t overcome misunderstanding, and it doesn’t erase isolation, or alienation. For doesn’t restore relationships. 

With, however: the entire premise of the preposition with is a relationship between two things, Good or Bad. 

The past year was a Hell of a year for many of us – and I mean that both literally and figuratively. Time and time again it felt as if shadows would surround us in an insurmountable way. Hope was stolen away from us as plans changed yet again. Our hearts were broken as we grieved beloveds. We were overwhelmed by the violence of the world, or the cynicism of the evening news, we fought with our neighbors and held strawmen arguments with political enemies – or stepparents – in our heads. 

It was a tough year. 

And yet. it’s into that same world, that world of heartbreak and power and violence and despair that God was born among us and chose to be with us. God wasn’t secluded among the comfortable, but born to an overwhelmed young couple on the outskirts of town, surrounded by grimy animals and uneducated shepherds who needed a good shower. God was found among us by magi, brilliant sages who “weren’t from these parts,” whose religion was different but knew the truth they sought. God was born among us in a town occupied by an empire who didn’t care about its people, who saw their bodies as a group to control and pockets to exploit, rather than people with purpose and meaning and lives that matter.

Into that world of heartbreak and power and violence and despair that God was born among us and chose to be with us. live with us. Love with us. Listen to our stories. Hear our pain and see our faces and restore our relationships with each other and with God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. 

And I think this is central to why Jesus’ following was so transformative for so many: Jesus saw people in a way that no one had before. This baby grew up and said “blessed are the poor, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the peacemakers: these are God’s children. He loved how, even in the midst of illness, a group of friends could rally around one guy to get him the help he needs, even if you have to cut a hole in a roof to do it. He listened to people in a way that no one had before. He treated women with the dignity – a healing balm in a world that insists on qualifying who matters. Each person was someone worth knowing in their own way – not for their own gain, or as a project to be fixed, but a person to spend time with. A name to say. A life story worth knowing. A relationship in need of restoration. 

Sure, there was an element of the preposition for in Jesus’ life. He was for us when he healed and taught, he was for us when he died on the cross, he was for us when he rose from the grave and ascended into heaven. These are things only God could do. But God only did those things for us because he was with us. 

We have all too often done this thing called “celebrating Christmas.” We hand out lots of gifts, we eat lots of food, and we put up signs as if we have to fight to keep Christ in a world that he’s already all over, whether or not we live as if it’s true. But Christmas is an orientation all its own, centered entirely on the preposition with.

This is the moment that this Methodist pastor reminds you of John Wesley’s final words on his deathbed: “Best of all, God is with us.” 

Best of all: God is with us. 

So let’s orient ourselves to Christmas all year round. Let’s celebrate Christmas by being with. By getting to know people in poverty and distress even when there’s nothing we can do for them. By being with people in grief and sadness even when you have no idea what to say. By being with and listening to and walking with those we find so difficult. By being with God in prayer, even when it feels like unproductive time.  

It’s a radical, transforming love, to show up again and again, and build relationships not for our own sake, not to make ourselves feel good or look good but because God is with us. It’s not easy. We know that already – It would have been easier for God to do it on God’s own. But God chose to do it with us. Even though it cost him everything.

God is here. This world full of brokenness, of tyrannical leaders and broken families and seemingly unsolvable problems? This is the world God loves. These less-than-perfect moments, where chaos and anxiety grow as hope diminishes? These are the places God is with us. 

That’s the power of our Christmas story. And so even in January, even as the lights get packed away for another year, let us become a Christmas people, oriented around the word with

I leave you this morning with my favorite poem by the Rev. Howard Thurman, chaplain to Howard and then Boston University in the mid-20th century, the Work of Christmas: 

 

When the song of the angels is stilled, 

When the star in the sky is gone, 

When the kings and princes are home, 

When the shepherds are back with their flock, 

The work of Christmas begins: 

To find the lost, 

To heal the broken, 

To feed the hungry, 

To release the prisoner, 

To rebuild the nations, 

To bring peace among others, 

To make music in the heart. 

Best of all, God is with us. 

Amen.

Sermon for Christmas Eve,  December 24, 2021 – “A Gentle Christmas”

Nativity of Our Lord –Good Shepherd Lutheran Church 

Decorah, Iowa – Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read the Christmas story according to Luke.

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

Last week someone said to me, have a Gentle Christmas. That felt like such a kindness. Sometimes a Merry Christmas feels out of reach, but a gentle one would be a real gift. I’ve been saying that to people ever since and they’ve all taken a deep breath, almost a sigh of relief.

 

It seems that collectively we are feeling pretty vulnerable and raw and longing for some gentleness. The Christmas story meets us right where we are. It is incredibly tender and sweet, and we need that. Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds and angels – we need the gentle simplicity of this story. It is a relief to let it wash over us. Tonight, the story, the carols, the music, the candle- light in the sanctuary or in your home these are all gentle gifts to nourish your soul. Yet, the story also enters right into our own complicated lives. Or more to the point, the story reveals that God enters right into our complicated lives.

 

As Jesus is born, I imagine Mary and Joseph are feeling pretty vulnerable. Almost nothing about their pregnancy has gone as planned. They’re engaged and expecting children, after their marriage, but then they learn Mary will give birth to God’s son. Once they come to grips with that startling news, they likely expect Mary will deliver the baby at home surrounded by her mother, a midwife, and other women. Instead, harsh political realities cause major upheavals for everyone. 

A powerful man’s words mean they will have to walk for days to a faraway city, right before Mary is to deliver the child. Well then, perhaps they can hope for a welcome with relatives in the city of Joseph’s family? Apparently not. At least a room in which to deliver the child? No, not even that.

The only place remaining for Mary and Joseph is among the animals. There she gives birth. She lays her child in a manger, the animals’ feeding trough. As Mary places her son there, I imagine that she and Joseph worry: Will he be warm enough, will the animals wake him, will he be safe? I imagine they feel anger that circumstances have led them to this. I imagine they long for home, for family.

 A manger is no place for a child. A child placed in a manger is not where you’d expect to find God. Yet there is precisely where God shows up. God comes to vulnerable, struggling people placing their son in a manger. And not only that, God comes as that vulnerable baby. As Mary and Joseph gaze upon their child in the manger, they are gazing upon God:

God, tiny and helpless; God who will soon need a change of swaddling clothes; God, completely and totally dependent, exposed, at risk. God has come to share our vulnerability. God has come to help us know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone.

When things are hard, it really helps for people to show up for us, to let us know they are with us.

It helps when people come to the funeral, bring food, or shovel the driveway, or call to ask, “How are you really?” When someone does this for you, they show you, hey, I’m here for you, we’re in  this together. This is what God does for us by becoming vulnerable, being born in a manger. God shows up to be with us in this whole fragile, raw, complicated life. God makes it real, makes it plain – hey, I am here, for you, we’re in this together. By being born in a manger, God also makes it clear that we’ll always find God in unlikely, humble, and fragile places.

God is found on the cross, amidst the suffering, in broken bread and wine poured out, in commu- nities of imperfect people, in those the world considers last and least. God is present in the hospi- tal waiting room, at the funeral, when that dreaded call comes, in the hard meeting. God is found in the war zone, at the border, in the courtroom. God is present in all of your placing a child-in-a-manger moments, whatever they might be.

God enters deep into the vulnerable, raw places of our world with such gentle love and compas- sion. And God’s presence changes things. Forgiveness happens. We taste mercy. Grace arises. We can be gentle with ourselves and others. Hope becomes possible. Love is born again. Joy erupts in the night.

God in a manger is good news of great joy for you. Even when life feels vulnerable and raw, especially when life feels vulnerable and raw, we can live with gentleness, with hope, with joy. Let this story, the music, the candles, the peace of this space wash over you and nourish you.

This is all we need for a gentle Christmas, and maybe even one that is merry and bright.

Sermon for Sunday, December 19, 2021 – “Welcomed, Seen, Blessed”

Fourth Sunday of Advent – 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.

There’s something we often miss about this encounter between Mary and Elizabeth. It’s the very first Christian worship service. Their time together involves call and response, the first liturgy.

There is greeting, blessing, proclamation, and praise of the God made known in Jesus.

During this encounter, Mary becomes the first evangelist, the first to share the good news of what God is up to in Jesus. She sings a courageous song of hope and trust, justice and joy that we now call the Magnificat. Her song shapes all of Jesus’ ministry. He learns, at his mother’s knee from her song, that he has come to lift up the lowly and humble the proud, to turn the world upside down.  

Yet before Mary can sing and practice such courage and faith, she needs the time of worship with her cousin Elizabeth. She needs to be welcomed, seen and blessed.

What happens for Mary in worship with Elizabeth is what we each need for lives of courage and trust. Mary shows up at Elizabeth’s home desperate for an embrace. She has just received terribly unsettling news. A strange angel has announced that she will give birth to God’s son. She asks the angel, “How can this be?” Yet there must be so many other questions as well. Mary is now an un- wed, teenage mother. What will people say? Will her family disown her? Will she be ostracized? 

Will she be stoned, as the law demands? Will she survive the birth? Will her fiancé Joseph stick around? After the angel departs, Mary runs with haste to her cousin Elizabeth. I picture her fall- ing into Elizabeth’s arms, weeping with confusion and fear.

Elizabeth receives everything Mary carries, embracing all of her. Elizabeth doesn’t expect her to have things figured out, tidied up, scrubbed clean before she shows up. This is how God welcomes us, welcomes you to worship as well. All of who you are, all of what you carry is embraced and honored. Grief, frustrations about COVID, family tensions, fears about school safety, financial con- cerns, worries about climate change and strange weather events – God gathers all of it and all of you. Worship isn’t about entering a sanitized space removed from the mess and muck of our lives. It’s about experiencing a haven, a sanctuary, a resting place amidst the struggles, as Mary finds with Elizabeth. This is what God gives to you in worship.

In their encounter, Elizabeth also sees something more in Mary, something more than meets the eye. Before Mary can even tell her what has happened, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, recognizes that Mary carries the son of God within her. Elizabeth sees the fullness of who Mary is now. Elizabeth sees a young, unwed mother but she sees much more than that. She sees how God is present in Mary and in Mary’s life in this most strange and mysterious way. This helps Mary to know she is seen by God. Mary then sings that God has looked with favor upon her, that God has seen her lowliness and still honored her. In worship, God gazes upon you with love, honoring you.

God sees all the pain and struggle of your love and sees something deeper and truer – that you are God’s beloved and beautiful to behold.

Elizabeth then speaks a blessing upon Mary. This blessing frees Mary from fear and shame. It sets her free to sing and oh, how she sings. She sings not only about what this all means for her, but what it means for the whole world. Mary sings and as she does, she gathers the strength to partic-  ipate in what God is doing for the world. The act of blessing frees Mary, frees you, to enter God’s song. Elizabeth welcomes, sees, and blesses Mary, providing her with the sanctuary she needs for a life of courage and faith.

These same gifts are given to you each week in worship. There is a place for you here.

You are beloved of God.

You are forgiven, set free from fear and shame.

You have a safe haven amidst the pain of this world.

With these gifts, you can live with courage and faith as Mary did.

With these gifts, you can extend welcome and blessing to others as Elizabeth did.

For just as God longs to welcome and bless us, God longs for us to welcome others, and especially to welcome the stranger. This is a near constant refrain in scripture – that we are called to wel- come the stranger and the things that seem strange to us. And powerful things happen when we do.

When Mary welcomes the strange messenger and his strange news, God’s world changing work is unleashed. When Elizabeth welcomes and blesses the strange thing she sees in Mary, she frees Mary’s song. When we welcome strangers, or even welcome what seems strange in people we think we know, we get the chance to see beyond the surface. We get to glimpse the fullness of who they are – beloved, precious children of God and beautiful to behold.  We get to see how God works in strange and mysterious and often hidden ways. We may even get to help God in setting people free from fear and shame.

This time of year, there are lots of opportunities to welcome strangers and to welcome strange things in the people we know best. There is also a lot that is really strange and troubling in our culture right now. But when we’re tempted to feel annoyed or disturbed this week, or this new year, we could instead see it as an opportunity to practice kindness to those who make us uncom- fortable. When your relative won’t stop talking about his favorite politician, when another keeps interrupting, when a stranger comes to worship, when you encounter someone who makes you uncomfortable as you travel, let that remind you to take a closer look at that precious child of God. 

This is what they need, it is what we need to practice – seeing God at work. It is what our world needs because being seen and welcomed can help reduce people’s fear and shame. And, God knows, our world needs less of the fear and shame that drive hatred and violence.

Of course, It can be frightening to welcome strangers, but another core theme of scripture is “do not be afraid.” We do not need to fear. 

God has come to welcome, to see, and to bless us and all people. 

God is at work in strange and mysterious ways even when everything seems frightening.

God gives us all that we need to join in the work of welcoming, seeing and blessing others.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.