This Week at Good Shepherd, January 13-19, 2020

Tuesday, January 14
9:30 a.m. – Anna Circle – Jane Borelli hosts
4:00 p.m.- Council Agenda Planning
4:45 p.m. – Education Committee

Wednesday, January 15 – Annual Reports Due
1:00 p.m. – Prayer Shawl Ministry – Ingrid Callahan hosts
5:00 p.m. – Confirmation Class
7:00 p.m. – Choir rehearsal
8:00 p.m. – Band rehearsal

Thursday, January 16
10:00 a.m. – Bible Study with Pr. Amy
5:00 p.m. – Decorah Community Meal at Decorah Lutheran

Friday, January 17
11:00 a.m. – Stewardship Committee Meeting

Sunday, January 19 – Second Sunday after Epiphany
8:45 a.m. – Choir Warmup
9:30 a.m. – Worship with Holy Communion
10:30 a.m. – Fellowship Hour
10:45 a.m. – Sunday School/Youth Forum
11:00 a.m. – Adult Forum – Budget Meeting – Preparation for the Annual Meeting

Sermon for Sunday, January 5, 2020 – “No Excuse Sunday”

Epiphany Sunday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Pr. Tom Buresh

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

So, tomorrow is January 6 which is the day of Epiphany. Today, the Second Sunday after Christmas, is Epiphany Sunday. The word Epiphany comes from Greek and means ‘to show’, referring to Jesus being revealed to the world. It marks a visit to the baby Jesus by Three Kings or Wise Men or Magi. The three Kings, from what I read, represented Europe, Arabia and Africa. Epiphany is celebrated twelve days after Christmas, so thus on January 6.

So, I could go on and on about the facts about Epiphany. In fact, I found ten facts about it that I could share but am not, so you can look them up yourself if you want. Instead, I decided to go quite a different direction concerning the wise men. I have always been amazed about how pastors choose what to talk about from a scripture reading. If I was out in the congregation today and listening to my sermon, I am sure I would be thinking, “Wow, how did he come up with that idea!” Well I did, so this morning I want to talk about what excuses the Magi might have given to King Herod as to why they went home a different way – kind of. Really, I want to talk about excuses in general. In fact, I would like, with permission from Pastor Amy of course, to declare today “No Excuse Sunday”.

(The ushers passed out “No Excuse” signs.)

Yes, I would like to talk about excuses today as we start another new year. You know, all those New Year’s Resolutions everyone makes, well some of you make anyway. It doesn’t take long to find excuses for not keeping them, does it? But for me, after teaching school for 33 years, when I think of excuses, I think of all the excuses I heard for not having homework done or even not coming to class. My favorite is a letter from a parent- Please excuse Jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch, and when we found it Monday, we thought it was Sunday.

Then, when I became a pastor after retiring from teaching, I started hearing excuses for not coming to church. The music isn’t their style. Not a good service time. Kids are fussy in church. Just too busy. Just to name a few. So today, please raise your banner high to help me declare today to be “No Excuse Sunday”. Now, I know that I am “preaching to the choir”, as they say, because all of you are here. But yet, that is exactly why I am preaching to you, because you are here, you are the choir that sings and prays and worships God in church most Sundays. And, YOU are the ones who care about Good Shepherd Lutheran Church! But, most importantly, since other people aren’t here, well, you are the ones who need to carry today’s message to them.

Let me tell you a little story that I love to tell about a little country church about 35 miles southwest of here. It’s the church my wife, Connie, grew up in and we were married in. Anyway, the foundation of the old church was getting bad so it was fix it or build a new one. You know the saying, “build it and they will come!“ Well, they built a new one and people came and came and came. Why? Because the members asked others to come and join them. It wasn’t the pastor, Dan Christensen, who invited them. It was the members who did. I have filled its pulpit a few times and 30-some kids came up to the children’s time.

As you might expect, my message is not just about inviting others to Good Shepherd, although that is certainly part of it. The message is also about the excuses we give for not doing lots of things – like following God’s call to us. So, what’s your excuse? We all have them. Certainly our ancestors in the faith had their excuses. Moses is high on the list. He kept coming up with excuse after excuse as to why he couldn’t follow what God was asking him to do. Who am I that I should go? I am not a very good speaker. What if they don’t listen to me? Oh Lord, just please send someone else!

Or how about Jonah? When God asked Jonah to go preach to Nineveh, Jonah ran the opposite direction to try and get out of it. He ended up in the belly of a big fish before he realized it would have been easier to just do God’s will. Just one more example you may not be as familiar with – Jeremiah was a young boy when he was called by God. Of course, Jeremiah used youth as an excuse. “I’m only a boy, I’m too young!”, he told God. I guess in a way, we can’t blame him. Besides that, the ministry God is calling him to is one that will start with destruction, long before he will get a chance to build, which he does.

So, what is your excuse? What excuse do you give instead of following God with YOUR life? – too old, tired, poor, busy, weak, scared, bashful, depressed, angry, overwhelmed, too …? Ephesians 1:4, which is in the lectionary for today, not for Jan 6 which we used today, tells us that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Yes, Moses, Jonah and Jeremiah were all called before they were even formed in the womb. And you know what, so are you and I. God has a purpose and God has a plan for each of us. And, it is a plan that when we say yes to God, Jesus promises to help us along the way. And better yet, promises us an abundant life both now and into eternity.

So, what happens when we say, yes? When Moses finally said yes, he helped to form the 12 disorganized tribes into the nation of Israel. After Jonah rode in the belly of a fish and finally said yes, his preaching was so effective that the whole city of Nineveh repented! And when Jeremiah said yes, he helped guide the southern kingdom of Judah through its exile in Babylon and gave it the vision of a new covenant from God. Yep, here we are, the “choir”. What is God calling us to do? And then, when God calls, and I truly believe God has called or will call each and every one of us, what excuse might you use to stop you from saying “yes” to God? Maybe you need a brother to walk along with you like Aaron did with Moses. Fine, use one! Do you need to ride in the belly of a fish for a while before you say “yes”? Well, go ahead and jump in!

So in closing, as we think back to this past Advent season, it almost seems like someone must have given a “no excuse” sign to several people involved – to Mary, to Joseph, to the innkeeper, to the shepherds, to the Magi. And now today. Today is our turn! Today is our turn to listen to what God has to say to us and then if we become hesitant to follow that call, remember, “No Excuses!”

This Week at Good Shepherd, January 6-12, 2020

Tuesday, January 7
1:30 p.m. – Property & Management Committee

Wednesday, January 8
10:30 a.m. – Communion at Aase Haugen
5:30 p.m. – Confirmation Class
7:00 p.m. – Choir rehearsal
8:00 p.m. – Band rehearsal

Thursday, January 9
10:00 a.m. – Adult Bible Study

Saturday, January 11
7:00 p.m. – Haiti Remembrance Concert

Sunday, January 12 – Baptism of our Lord
9:30 a.m. – Worship with Holy Communion – Haiti Earthquake Remembrance Service
10:30 a.m. – Fellowship Hour
10:45 a.m. – Sunday School/ Youth Forum

Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019 – “Our Manger Moments”

Nativity of Our Lord
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for Christmas Eve.

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

This month I’ve seen many Facebook posts with a picture of a manger and the holy family and the words, “The first Christmas was simple. It’s OK if yours is too.” I love that permission to celebrate in whatever way you most need. I pray you experience a simple joy and wonder in worship tonight.

However, I don’t know that I’d say the first Christmas was all that simple. It strikes me as a pretty complicated, stressful situation.

When things feel anything but simple and easy at Christmas – in our country, in our families, in our lives – we actually have a lot in common with Mary and Joseph.

They are young and unwed and yet expecting a child. An emperor wants to count them so that he can tax them more heavily, which means they have to undergo perilous travel at the end of the pregnancy. When they arrive, there is no room for them. A powerful man’s words have created upheaval for common people who’ve had to crowd into the towns in order to be counted. The only place remaining for Mary and Joseph is among the animals; there she gives birth. She has to lay her child in a manger, the animals’ feeding trough.

A manger is no place for a child. As Mary places him 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 a fair bit of anger at the emperor for putting them in this situation in the first place. I imagine they long for home.

Yet, the very thing that likely feels most troublesome to Mary and Joseph – their child lying in a manger – that becomes a sign of God’s presence. When the shepherds are told that a Savior has been born for them, the angel says, “This will be a sign for you. You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” I imagine the shepherds are perplexed when they hear this.

A savior in a manger? Shouldn’t a savior be lying in luxury in a heavily guarded palace?

After the angel and the multitude of the heavenly host depart, the shepherds go with haste to see this thing that has taken place. They find Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. When they see that strange and unsettling sight, a child in a feeding trough, then they know God has shown up – in the last place you’d expect to find God. What likely feels most troublesome to Mary and Joseph becomes a sign of God’s presence.

Conventional wisdom is that we will experience God in peaceful, serene settings. When all seems right with the world, then we’ll know God’s presence.

Yet in Jesus, God shows up through an unwed peasant couple, living under Roman occupation, who are far from home, who have to place their child in a manger.

Things are difficult, messy, and complicated for Mary and Joseph and it is in the midst of the struggle that God is born through them. God enters into the hardship and brings new life for them and for all the world. Love is born, hope is born for them, for us, for you.

In Christ Jesus, God enters deep into what is most painful. This is where we find God – in the manger, among the poor, on the cross, places you’d least expect to find God. God enters into these places to transform our world from the inside, to bring new life from within.

This is where God still shows up today in unlikely, humble and fragile places – in broken bread and wine poured out, in communities of imperfect people, in those the world considers last and least, in our tenuous faith. God is here. And God is present in our own lives amid those things that feel most worrisome and troublesome to us. God is present for you in your own placing a child in a manger moments, whatever they may be. God is there, love is there, hope is born for you even there.

With this promise for us, we, too, can be signs of God’s presence.

Our complicated, messy lives can bear witness to good news of great joy for all people. The good news is that God doesn’t wait until everything is calm and peaceful, but rather comes amidst the chaos to work new life from within it all. Just as God showed up through Mary and Joseph and their manger moment, through us God shows up in courtrooms and meetings, in war zones and hospital rooms, in bedrooms and kitchens, in simple, painful or joyful Christmas celebrations. God is there, God is here. New life is happening for us and through us often where we least expect it.

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

This message comes to us tonight as it came to the shepherds long ago.

There is good news of great joy for all people.

Let your song of joy arise. Share in the wonder of this night. God is here.

Thanks be to God.

Sermon for Sunday, December 22, 2019 – “Wake Up and Dream”

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.

Advent is a wake-up call, one we’ve been hearing all month. Yet Advent is also an invitation to dream along with Joseph and the prophet Isaiah, along with God.

Joseph’s story is full of dreams. It starts with a young couple who have hopes and dreams about their future. They’ll have a wedding feast and then live together. Joseph will be a carpenter, they’ll have children. They’ll be respected members of their community because they are righteous and faithful people.

All of a sudden, everything changes.

Mary is pregnant. Joseph is not the father. And Mary is saying the child is of the Holy Spirit. He’s got to assume she must be lying or delusional. What a nightmare.

I picture Joseph up all night pacing, stewing, thoughts swirling, unsure how to proceed. Finally, he decides to dismiss Mary quietly and be done with it all.

Just as Joseph resolves to do this, God’s messenger appears to him in a dream. He assures Joseph that what is happening for him and Mary is not a nightmare – it is the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams. The angel says, “do not be afraid” to hold on to Mary. She has been faithful. You can be faithful. God will be with you.

This message of promise gives Joseph the courage to take his part in God’s dream for the world – God’s plan to redeem the whole world. He takes Mary as his wife. She bears a son. Joseph names him, adopting him as his own. Joseph can sleep more easily again. Yet, that’s not the end of Joseph’s story.

After the child’s birth, the whole country faces a horrific nightmare. King Herod is threatened when he learns a child has been born King of the Jews. So, he orders the death of all infants under two years old. God’s messenger again appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him his family should flee to Egypt and escape Herod’s violence. They stay there until Joseph learns in a dream that they can return home. Still another dream guides him not to go to the area of Judea, but rather to Galilee.

In the midst of confusion, turmoil and violence, God guides Joseph with dreams and helps Joseph to take his part in God’s dream for the world.

How does what you dream form and shape your life?

Dr. Craig Nessen, professor at Wartburg Seminary, asked this question in a recent presentation.[1]  Nessen points out that what changes us as people are not arguments, but rather what we imagine about ourselves, about others, about the world. It is our holy work, he says, to imagine the dream of God.

We’ve been hearing about the dream of God throughout Advent in the promises from the prophet Isaiah.

God’s dream is that swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks; that the wolf will lie down with the lamb and no one will hurt or destroy; that the wilderness will burst forth with abundance for all people, all creation; and all will know Emmanuel – God with us.

In Advent, we are called to imagine God’s dream, to let it form and shape us as God’s people. We’re called to open our eyes to how God’s dream is already breaking into our reality right now in Christ Jesus who is, who was, and who is to come.

Sometimes when I hear Joseph’s story, I long for the clarity he got in his dreams. I long to fall asleep and get messages like he did that will help form and shape me. Some people do get dreams like that. I never have.

Yet, all of us are given Christ Jesus, who is Emmanuel-God with us. Christ Jesus is how God’s dream for the world is happening and will happen. Christ Jesus is how God guides us, shapes us, forms us, and how God helps us to take our part in that dream.

Christ Jesus is present today in bread and wine, word and song, in the gathered community. He is here for you today to say what was said to Joseph long ago, “Do not be afraid.” Look at what I am doing for you, through you.

Your life and the world might sometimes feel like a nightmare, you may struggle to sleep, you may struggle to get out of bed. But, Christ Jesus here and God’s dream is breaking into this world. And, you have a part to play in God’s story. This story isn’t just about Joseph, Mary, the angel Gabriel and people who get clear guidance in dreams. It is you and me and all of creation.

Let’s wake up, open our eyes and dream.

And, let’s take a moment to pray.

[1] Dr Nessen asked this question recently during a presentation at the Grace Institute for Spiritual Formation. Learn more about Grace Institute at