Sermon for Sunday, December 4, 2022  Second Sunday of Advent  “Morning is Coming!”

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.

How are you?

How are you really?

How is your body? Your mind? Your spirit?

When you look at your life these days, what do you see?  What do you hear?

Are you experiencing life-giving, holy disruption?

Do you feel unsettled by unwelcome changes? 

Where do you sense hope?

Is your weariness cured by a good night’s rest; or is it deeper, more difficult to tend?

What do you need?

Advent is a season for truth telling. It’s a season that asks How are you? and refuses to let you leave with a hurried fine

Advent looks you in the eye, reaches out to touch your shoulder, pulls you in for a strong hug when your eyes begin to brim with tears. 

Advent sits with you in the silence as you struggle to express your deepest yearnings, your most peace-stealing fears.

And on those days when Christmas lights bring a gentle joy, when music makes your heart soar,  when a simple kindness stirs hope and warmth enough for the coldest days … then Advent rejoices with you. It invites you to see and to hear even more signs of God’s love for you, assures you that yes, this is God’s dream for the world, this is the way life is intended to be, this is the way life will be … peaceful, joyful, abounding in hope.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, Advent promises, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

For us today it might be less surprising to see a wolf live with a lamb than to see partisans work together for the common good. It might be less surprising to see the leopard lie down with the 

kid than to see our hurting families get along. We need this shoot to come out from the stump of Jesse, abundant life to emerge once more from the very place where it was cut down. We need to see that death and destruction is never the end in the dream of God. In the realm of God in which we live, a stump is a thing of promise, a new beginning, the perfect place for God to work. Advent asks Where are the stumps in your life and in the life of the world? What has been cut down? Re- moved? Destroyed? Broken? Look closely, Advent whispers. Those are the places where God is at work. New life will emerge there. Watch. Wait. Trust. Believe. 

Jesus is coming, Advent proclaims. Jesus is coming. There’s a Carrie Newcomer song that comes to mind. She sings: 

From the muddy ground comes a green volunteer. 

In a place we thought barren new life appears. 

Morning will come whistling some comforting tune, for you. 

You can do this hard thing.

Advent, too, proclaims: Morning is coming, the dawn is near. Jesus is coming, morning is coming whistling a comforting tune for you.

That tune is the song of the angels: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace. 

It’s the song of Mary: God has brought the powerful down from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

It’s the song of Zechariah: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.  

It’s even the song of John, the biting song that ultimately brings comfort by way of conviction: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

By now I’m accustomed to John’s colorful song. What still surprises me is how people flocked to hear him. Maybe when we’re in the wilderness we can finally welcome the truth-tellers. We can see that we need to turn around. The call to repentance can be heard because we see that what we’re doing is not working, our lives need to change. In the wilderness of our lives, we need a call to repentance and the burning up of all the chaff to which we cling so stubbornly. We need Jesus.

Jesus is coming to clear the threshing floor that is this world. All the fear, injustice, violence, and disease that keep this world from abundant life will be burned. Jesus will bring a most holy disruption in the form of this fire. Jesus himself will tend to the fire, and he will not let the wheat be swallowed up by the flames; he will not let you be destroyed by his judgment. As the Gospel of John sings, Jesus comes not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Morning is coming, whistling a comforting tune for you. A new day is dawning. This promise of new possibilities is not a commercial jingle touting salvation through spending. The promise of new possibilities is grounded in the Word of God made flesh, the Word of God embodied and alive within you and beside you. 

Jesus is coming and is already here in the assurance of forgiveness, in the peace we share, in the bread and wine that makes us full with love, and hope, and joy. Whatever you need is here.

Advent stands fast and sings for all the world to hear, sings for you to hear: 

New life is sprouting.

A new day is dawning.  

Your savior is coming, is here.

A new song of hope can arise within you.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2022 First Sunday of Advent “Disruption!”

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.

This reading would be jarring at any time, but it sounds especially dissonant as we prepare for cozy celebrations of Jesus’ birth. Instead of glad tidings of great joy, we’re startled by the noise of a thief in the night. Windows shatter. Footsteps sound on the stairs. It’s time to wake up, pay attention, take action.

This isn’t what we expect in the holiday season. Yet maybe it’s what we need for the good news of Jesus to get through to us. The good news is not just that baby Jesus was born long ago. The good news is that, in Jesus, God broke into our world in a most unexpected way. Jesus came not with power and might, but as a vulnerable baby who then lived as a peasant, ate with sinners, and died at the hands of the Empire. He lived and loved radically, disrupting the ways of this world. The world tried to stop him and put him to death. But God disrupted even the power of death, raising Jesus from the dead.

Christ Jesus is alive, breaking into every aspect of our world to make all things new. Christ is always working to disrupt the sin and brokenness and injustice that is within and all around us and bring in God’s reign of peace and well-being. Yet, Christ works in sneaky, undercover ways. And it is not always easy to perceive what God is doing. There is so much that gets in the way.

We can get overwhelmed by floods of despair and fear as we see this country, families and communities torn apart in these difficult days. We can get stuck in ruts and routines, nose to the grindstone, and miss Christ’s presence. We can get lulled to sleep by apathy and overindulgence, settling for coziness rather than life-giving change. It can be hard to see and respond to what God is doing. So Jesus comes to us, again and again, to say wake up, rouse yourself, pay attention. I am doing a new thing for you, for the world.

We especially get these calls in the season of Advent. Some Advent wake-up calls are quite harsh. They sound as unwelcome as a thief in the night. The Gospel reading from Matthew today is like that. It’s intended to sweep us out of our comfort zones. It’s meant to unsettle and even uproot  patterns, routines and relationships. Scriptures like this seek to break into our lethargy and in- difference, to startle us to attention. Christ is disrupting the world. Keep alert, be prepared.

Other scriptures in Advent function more like an alarm clock, meant to rouse us to action in the morning. The passage from Romans today is like that: ”You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep … the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.” Scriptures like these seek to get us up and going to help bring in Christ’s new day.

We need these kinds of wake-up calls. Yet if all we had were the sounds of a thief in the night or a shrill alarm clock, we could get overwhelmed. This could make us want to install a security system to be safe from God’s intrusions, make us want to hide our heads under our pillows and push snooze on the alarm clock for a bit longer. After all, our world is full of strident calls to action – of people sounding the alarm that it’s well past time to rouse ourselves to address climate change, racism, violence, injustice. Sometimes these get us going. Sometimes they lead to despair. 

So thankfully other scriptures in Advent wake us in a kinder way, more like the sun pouring into our window at daybreak and falling gently upon our faces. Scriptures like our Isaiah reading today shine into our hearts with the light of God’s new dawn to stir us to hope, to rouse us to joy.

We hear of a great and glorious time in which nations will no longer learn war, in which swords and spears will be beaten into farm tools. We’re awakened to the promise of this new day. We’re called to look forward to it and live in it’s light even when we can’t yet feel the warmth of it on our faces. 

This sunlight can feel so distant as bombs explode in Ukraine, as mass shooting deaths continue to mount. Yet it is there for us. And we desperately need the light of these promises. We need them to show us the path and guide our steps forward so that we can live differently in a violent world. We need to be assured that God is doing this and we are called to join. It isn’t all up to us. This is God’s work. As we walk in these ways, we are healed and we help creation to heal.

Advent’s disruptive scriptures may not be what we want in December, but they are what we need to experience the good news of Jesus. Advent wakes us up so that we can stand in wide-eyed wonder as hope is born at Christmas. It opens our eyes to see how God continues to come to us in un- expected, mysterious ways. It rouses us to attention, action and hope so that we can participate in God’s subversive work of making all things new.

Wake, awake says God to you today. See what God is doing for you, for our world.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

Sermon for Sunday, November 20, 2022  Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost   Christ the King Sunday “All the Days of Our Lives”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church   – Decorah, Iowa

Click here to read scripture passages for the day

Children’s sermon

What is your favorite holiday?

What is another important day for you each year? 

What are some other fun days that get you excited? … birthday, first day of school, snow days, long weekends from school, family vacations …

What is your favorite season?

Today we have a special day in the church, Christ the King Sunday, and next Sunday we start a whole new church year with the season of Advent. These can seem like strange days and strange seasons, but they can help us to think about our days and about how God is part of all the happy and regular and hard days of our lives.

Let’s pray,

Thank you for all our days,

And for all the seasons.

Help us see you all the time.

Amen.

 

As the kids go back to their seats, I want to hear from the rest of you about the days of our lives.

How many of you struggle with Mondays? How many of you love Mondays now that you’re re- tired? What are other important days or seasons on the calendar the kids didn’t mention? I’m thinking of one that happens on April 15thVeteran’s Day, Labor Day, Black History month …

As we think about important days in the culture and in the church calendar there is some overlap. Halloween comes from All Hallows Eve, a holy, hallowed eve. There’s Christmas and Easter. How many days ‘til Christmas and why do you know? When is Easter and how is the date figured out each year? Then there are some days that in the US are only marked by the church. What are some of the days?… Epiphany, Pentecost, Ascension, Ash Wednesday, Holy week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday … Christ the King …

The Christian calendar is different, maybe a little odd in the eyes of the world. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church year. Next Sunday we begin a new church year with the season of Advent. Advent is odd because it puts the church out of step with the larger culture that’s al- ready singing about Rudolph and Mistletoe. Everywhere else the Christmas party is already in full swing. Yet, the Church waits in anticipation. In a culture that’s all about instant gratification, Ad- vent shapes us to be people of hope, people who long for comfort and joy, not just for ourselves but for the whole world. It is different and it is good. We’re people that live with the promise, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you different.”

Case in point:  It’s Christ the King Sunday, a day we celebrate that Jesus is Lord! Hurray! We recognize Christ’s triumph over the grave, his defeat of the powers of sin, death and evil. Today we celebrate VICTORY! Right? Yes, and … it may sound a little different than we expect. See what you notice as we hear the Gospel. (We rise for the Gospel Acclamation.) What? That doesn’t sound like a conquering king, hanging there on a cross with people making fun of him – that isn’t right!

I’m picturing the little boy in The Princess Bride movie as his grandpa is reading him a fairy tale.

Whenever something doesn’t seem to be working out, when it looks like evil is winning and true love won’t prevail, the boy stops his grandpa to say, “What, that can’t be right!” If this story was a movie, just as the cries of save yourself got loud enough the king would reach out to summon his magic hammer or leap down from the cross. His followers would fling off their robes revealing swords and more appropriate fighting attire and kick butt.

Christ is a very different kind of king. Rather than conquering and knocking skulls, Christ gives of himself and forgives. Christ promises a criminal, an outcast, and all of us: There is a place for you in God’s kingdom. Rather than escaping the suffering, Christ stays present to it, to us. Christ shares all of what it means to be human in solidarity with us. Even the worst of what we humans do can’t stop Christ from loving, forgiving, and helping us to experience paradise, even today, in the presence of God. Rather than lording his power over others, Christ uses his power to be with, and for, and ultimately within each of us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ changes hearts and changes the world from within.

This changes how we can move through the days and seasons of our lives. Today, and every day, Christ is with us so we can experience a sense of paradise, now, in the presence of God. We don’t have to wait until we die. Because of Christ’s presence with us, all of our days are opportunities to practice love, mercy and solidarity. In all times, we can use our power with and for others. We can experience and help others to experience God’s kingdom where well-being and justice, safety and righteousness flourish.

We have a different kind of calendar, a different kind of King, a different way of living in and through our days.

Thanks be to God.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

 “Fruit of the Spirit:  Gathering and Sharing God’s Abundance” A Stewardship Temple Talk prepared by Kris Peterson

For Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Decorah IA, 11-06-2022

          Good morning, friends! It’s my honor to share with you this morning just a few brief words, at the invitation of our Stewardship Committee. This is the time of our church stewardship appeal, the theme of which is “Fruit of the Spirit: Gathering and Sharing God’s Abundance” as you can see from the beautiful and informative handout which you received this morning. The request to me might seem a bit surprising, in that Dave and I are really relatively new members of the Good Shepherd Church family. But then perhaps that was exactly what was being asked… from our experience of being new to this place…What drew us here…. and what has caused us to stay: to linger, to put down our faith roots, along with yours.  And how do we hope to grow and share together in this place. 

          Last spring Dave and I took our first “real” road trip in many months, driving to Sedona AZ… a trip that had been abruptly canceled in March of 2020.  As we hiked high among those beautiful red rocks of this stunning place in God’s creation, it happened often that we would become unsure of our direction, perhaps take a wrong turn, or even lose the path altogether. We would pause, look around, try to get our bearings….  And then we would spot off ahead of us a “cairn,” ~ a small tower of rocks alongside the path built to serve as a marker, a waymark, a signpost, of the direction we should go.  These were assembled by human hands to help guide less experienced hikers who followed, in the right direction to proceed. I pondered then, as I hiked, of the human “cairns” throughout my life, who served as guides and direction pointers, the very significant people from my past ~ and I also thought very specifically you, of the good people of our church family.

          What drew us here, sharing this faith path with you? For what do we give thanks? Once, in a time of discernment for me, my brother had offered me this guidance: “You need to go where your faith is fed.”  And for us, in this time, that place is here … at Good Shepherd.

          So who are my “cairns,” direction pointers in faith?

      Pastor Amy’s true and faithful invitation to Communion each and every Sunday, as we gather around the Lord’s Table: “there is a place for you here, YOU are welcome here,” touches me deeply. And I think that it flows from our shared faith and worship, that we desire to share our lives and our gifts from God’s Abundance with one another here, and with our community and beyond. At Good Shepherd we are thankful for the vibrancy of worship, in spoken Word and music, and for opportunities for members, young and old, who share their gifts in instrumental music, jazz worship, bell ringers, cantors, hymns, choir, and band, worship leaders, which we anticipate each Sunday and which enhance our worship. 

          Welcomers.  I am grateful to those who offer to serve as greeters and welcomers and ushers at worship,~ and following worship to the hospitality providers, for the generosity with which they provide fellowship time following worship, allowing for opportunities for relaxed conversations, deepening our sense of welcome and belonging.  Last week it humbled me and gave me joy: witnessing two young children folding napkins, carefully arranging silverware, and pointing out “this is how we do it” … I am intimidated by the coffee machines, and Pastor Melissa’s courage to dive right in: “let’s just read the directions!” and observing two new friends at the more senior end of the age spectrum lingering long after coffee, connecting, and sharing fellowship. I recall Harland Nelson inviting us to one of our first fellowship times, when we might otherwise have anonymously slipped out a side door:  saying, “Come join us, it’s almost a complete brunch!  The only things missing are the eggs!”

          I am thankful for the inviters. There were, and continue to be, gentle and sincere invitations from you inviters to participate in the vibrant life of the congregation, in service to the church, to fellow members, to the community, and to the world at large.  In the words of my husband, a career coach, “at Good Shepherd, no one is relegated to the bench.”  We found ourselves invited and welcomed to join in efforts that met our interests and talents ~ choir, circle, Bible study, St. Grubby’s Day (Bob, I was so touched when you invited us to stop and pray before we took to cleaning the church with dust rags and soapy water!), lawn mowing, Mission Green, ushering, committee work, Vacation Bible School, MealTrain, painting, baking communion bread, Sunday School support.  My heart was touched by the young middle school boy who prayed for me, for my “rose” and my “thorn” as is their practice in faith formation class … and activities that stretched us:  krumkake making! (and I can testify that the committee can truly teach ANYONE to make krumkake! ~ though I have to acknowledge that my stamina was related in direct proportion to Al Andersen’s patient coaching and positive encouragement! “Some people Like theirs brown, Kris!”

          There are those of you who have the gift of being visionaries ~ and those who see tangible needs in our neighbors and the world, and move out in practical ways to advocate and address these … Deep gratitude and respect to those of you working for social justice, peace, anti-racism efforts, environmental stewardship, and providing much needed food  and infant kits, school kits, and donations to advocacy organizations.

          Thank you to the teachers, 

           the gardeners, 

          the knitters and crocheters,

          the technology-savy, 

                   the encouragers,

                    the shepherds,

          Thank you to the pray-ers,

           the writers, 

          the poets, 

          the dramatists,

                   the composers

 who undergird all that is Good Shepherd…

          So You see, through the eyes of a newbie, to one just learning the “Good Shepherd way” to serve as the church, you each serve in your way as a faith “cairn,” … to someone…This is my opportunity to stand up and share this love letter to Good Shepherd, to say “thank you” to you for being the church where the Word is taught, where the welcome to the table is extended to all, where our faith is nurtured, and where we can partner together with you to serve, to bear fruit, and to grow in faithful stewardship of God’s Abundant gifts.               Thank You.

Sermon for Sunday, November 6, 2022 Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost All Saints Sunday – “Alive in God”

Reverend Amy Zalk Larson
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa

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

When a loved one dies, it’s so hard to hear others refer to them in the past tense. As people say all sorts of kind things – “She was so generous”, “She was really funny” – it hits you again. “She was” means she is no longer alive.

It’s also hard to know which tense you want to use when referring to a loved one. After the death of a spouse do you say, “Today is our wedding anniversary,” or “Today would have been our wedding anniversary? Do you say, “We have three children,” or “We had three children and our son died ten years ago?” Referring to our loved ones in the past tense can be so painful. We want them to be present in our lives, and we want our speech to reflect that.

Jesus says that God uses the present tense when speaking to Moses about his ancestors who have died. In the story Jesus is referencing, God says to Moses, “I AM the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God doesn’t say, “I once was the God of your ancestors back when they were alive and I remember them well,” but rather, “I AM the God of your ancestors.” Jesus says God doesn’t have to use the past tense for those who have died for they are alive to God. The dead are raised and live now as children of God, children of the resurrection.

Jesus’ words here raise many questions and don’t offer any easy answers. Instead, they evoke a beautiful mystery beyond our comprehension. Those who have died do not only inhabit the past. They live now in the presence of God, in the heart of God. This is not because they are so worthy, but because they are considered worthy through the love and faith and action of Christ Jesus. Because of Christ, we all have a place in the resurrection, a place in God’s life, now and always. This means we can still think of our relationships with our departed loved ones in the present and future tenses. All of us are now held in God’s heart; so in some way, we are still together. And we will be together in God in the age to come.

The end of life here is not the end of love, connection, intimacy with God and one another. We still have a future together. The good news is that this future is not just a continuation of life here on earth with all its sin, sorrow, and brokenness. As Jesus says, those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but in the age to come everything will be different. Our relationships and all aspects of our life together will be transformed. We will know new ways of being in relationship, new ways of being togeth- er with all the children of God.

For instance, in the age to come, women won’t be the property of men as they were in Jesus’ day. So, no one will need to wonder what will happen to a woman who had many husbands and no children. Who gets to claim her in the resurrection? Only our loving God! She, and all those who’ve suffered oppression, will finally share in the fullness of life that God longs for them to know. All the other things that mar relationships here -abuse, scorn, contempt, addiction, absence, isolation – will be healed and transformed. We will all share in such fullness of life, together in the heart of God.

This is God’s intention for all creation: wholeness, communion, the healing of all divisions in the presence of God. This is God’s future, this is our future. Yet that can seem so remote right now. Sin and rupture and death seem so powerful, so forceful, so ever present. That’s why All Saints Sunday is such a gift. In many ways, it’s a thin place. Celtic Christians use the term “thin place” to describe places and times where the boundary between heaven and earth feels more permeable, when we experience God more fully.

On All Saints Sunday we get a foretaste of God’s promised future. We also enter the thin and mysterious space between life and death, between what is and what is yet to come.
We get to linger in the mystery: As we honor our grief while we practice hope; and as we experience the presence of the whole communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses from every time and place who surround us always.

As names are read, candles lit, bells tolled, we have sensory experiences with these saints who have gone before. Throughout worship, we see the lights of these people shining around us. As we prepare to receive communion, we sing the song that saints are always singing in God’s presence when we sing Holy, Holy, Holy God. As we sing, somehow our voices are united with the church on earth, the choirs of angels and all the hosts of heaven; we join in their unending hymn. Then, we gather at the communion rail, on our half of the circle. And somehow, in a beautiful mystery, the healed, resurrected saints who have gone before us fill in the other half of the circle.

Whenever we gather for worship, we get a glimpse of this mystery, of this communion we share; but on All Saints Sunday it is even more pronounced. So, linger here beloved saints of God. Experience the good news that God’s promised future is breaking into our world even now.

Death does not win, those who have died live still in God. We are still with them, even now; we still have a future together. Sin will not define us; all our relationships will be healed and transformed. Sorrow does not have the last word, love will prevail.

Here and now, in the present tense, God is working to let us experience this so that our living now will be changed, so that our world now will be changed.