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Monday, April 21, 2014

My Dad - A Virtuous Life

10 years ago, on Wednesday of Holy Week, April 16, 2003, my father dropped dead of a massive heart attack. The medical examiner said he was dead before he hit the floor. That very night God demanded his life from him.
Fortunately, my father did not spend his life chasing after the wind or storing up an abundance of possessions. In fact, it was almost as if he prepared for that moment. On Tuesday evening, he and my mother attended a reconciliation service at a local church. On Wednesday morning, they drove to their home church where he received communion. He spent the day with my mother, took her grocery shopping and hung out at home. … Unusual for my 77-year old father who spent most days working outside, in the garage or at a local machine shop. … That evening my parents ate dinner with my dad’s only surviving brother. They returned home, he went into his room, and prayed. His virtuous life came to a sudden end.
His last two days were no anomaly. My father, married for 53 years and the father of 3 sons, was a veteran of the Second World War and the Korean War. Like St. Paul, he too labored, not as a tentmaker but as a machinist in an Aliquippa steel mill for 46 years. He didn’t smoke or drink. He didn’t swear or trash talk our mother. He did not tolerate such talk among men. In fact, when we were visiting an uncle, who did all of those things, my dad said, “Szwagier (Polish for brother-in-law). Szwagier, if you’re going to talk like that, we’re leaving.” Our uncle responded in words that were not socially acceptable, and we left. Like the father of our country, my father detested swearing.
He talked the good talk, and he walked the good walk. He evangelized as a catechist, but his medium for teaching children and teens how to avoid vice and embrace virtue extended beyond the classroom onto the baseball field.
He evangelized on baseball fields throughout Beaver County, Pennsylvania, and his “Pep” Young glove was his instrument of communicating Law and Gospel, vices to avoid and virtues to embrace.
I tell you about my father not to aggrandize him, but to offer some advice for virtuous living today. Take time today and reflect upon Colossians 3.
Our Lutheran Tradition reminds us that we teach the Bible truth that by faith alone we obtain the forgiveness of sins. Ask yourself, is that teaching rooted deeply in my heart? Christ’s resurrection proves all His promises will be fulfilled. Think about this – Do I sincerely trust that God indeed fulfills all His promises? Or like the greedy man, do I ensure for my own security by building up riches on earth?
Do I trust that God will forgive me of my sins … my vices? Do I trust that God’s Holy Spirit will guide me to live as a Christian … virtuously? Will someone be citing me as a Christian example ten years after I am dead? If so, or if not, we should ask ourselves as we listen to Jesus if we are ready to walk the walk? As we walk with our Savior, may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Christ Blessing the Children

“Christ Blessing the Children” hangs on my office wall. The painting depicts the scene found in Mark 10:13-16, which concludes, “Then Jesus took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.”
It reminds me that a multitude of people answered Jesus’ call to rest in Him. Jesus desires to hold all people in His heart. Looking at each individual as uniquely created for fellowship with his or her Creator for all eternity, He is not willing to lose one.
Jesus looked past the color of people’s skin and the number of their years. He took no notice of the wealth or poverty expressed in their clothing. Instead, He gazed lovingly into the very soul of each person that came to Him. His presence seemed to reach past the crowd and draw the skeptics who curiously watched at the sea wall. His intense love for them penetrated their souls.
The painting shows Peter and John exhausted from having tended the needs of the masses for weeks. They assumed Jesus too would be weary, and commanded the children to leave Him alone. They had more important matters to attend than to deal with children. But Jesus said, “Let the children come to Me.”
The people of Capernaum, for the most part, welcomed Christ and parents brought their children to Him to be blessed.  As these parents brought their children to Jesus, we are to bring our children, our friends, and our neighbors to Christ to be blessed with a touch of God’s love and with the gift of eternal salvation.
As we celebrate Easter, allow yourself, your children and grandchildren to be drawn closer to our Lord’s heart and rest. Happy Easter, little ones.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

We're Debt Free!!!

God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. … He came, He saw, He conquered. … God visits His people with Victory.
My focus is the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, with an emphasis on verses 6-8: “’He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.’ And they remembered his words.”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[1] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
Chris and Dana step to the microphone. Four years after incurring $80,000 of debt from student loans, credit cards, two cars and the birth of two kids, they are ready for this moment. In unison, they shout at the top of their lungs, “We’re debt free!” … On the heels of their debt free scream, a line from Braveheart – “Freeeee…dooommm!!!”
Daily, dozens of couples and individuals echo these screams. Relieved that they are debt free, these people tell the world their stories of incurring debt and paying it off by heeding the advice of one man, Dave Ramsey.
Dave Ramsey fans travel to Nashville to tell their story and scream on his syndicated radio show because they are relieved they worked diligently, budgeted income and expenses, ate beans and rice, and lived like no one else. They proudly paid their debt.
We too are debt free. After incurring the debt of our sins and our parents’ sins – Adam and Eve – our debt is paid. The difference between the debt paid by Chris and Dana and ours is that Jesus Christ our Risen Lord paid our debt. Christ was payer and pay, propitiator and propitiation, and His payment warrants a debt free scream from each of us.
Our freedom from debt involved no effort on our part. We did not budget income and expenses, work two jobs, use the envelope system, or eat beans and rice for two years. All we did was believe. Believe.
Luke recorded the disciples of Jesus did not run from the cave screaming, “We’re debt free!” Rather, when they left the tomb, they remembered his words and “went home marveling at what had happened.”[2]
The thought of Jesus rising from the dead did not occur to them because they did not expect a resurrection. … Think of it. Until this moment, the Bible recounts 6 people raised from the dead – 3 by prophets and 3 by Jesus.[3] Why would resurrection enter the disciples’ minds? That is why Luke recorded that the disciples left the empty tomb marveling at what had happened.
What about Mary Magdalene and the other women who told these things to the apostles? … We know they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. They entered but did not find Jesus’ body. Perplexed, when two men in dazzling apparel appeared, they buried their faces in the ground in fright. After the men delivered their message, the women returned to the disciples and told them what happened, but their “words seemed to [be] an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”[4]
Resurrection from the dead … furthest thing from their minds. God’s victory over Satan, sin and death … furthest thing from their minds. A debt-free scream … furthest thing from their minds. In other words, Luke pointed out that the disciples realized God’s victory comes not from an experience of an empty tomb, but from an experience of the Risen Lord.
For Luke, the empty tomb in itself is not proof of the resurrection, but simply a source of wonderment. Faith in the resurrection springs from the actual experience of the risen Lord.[5] Only then did the first Christians understand what the empty tomb meant – that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Peter’s experience of the risen Lord occurred 22 verses after he returned home marveling at what he saw in the tomb. When the disciples on the road to Emmaus returned, Luke recorded the apostles’ statement, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon![6]
The Lord has risen indeed! God indeed has visited us with victory over Satan, sin and death. Christ has paid our debt. We are indeed debt free. Alleluia! Amen!
Unchecked excitement ran through the disciples’ veins and down their spines when the risen Lord appeared to them. They saw Him die. They saw His empty tomb. Now, they witnessed Him alive. The unparalleled experience of witnessing Christ alive impelled them to tell the world of the great Paschal Mystery – Christ’s willful suffering, death and resurrection, and what He taught throughout His life on earth. Peter and the disciples remembered and shared their experiences of Jesus the Christ with greater zeal and zest than any Dave Ramsey disciple.
Today, more than 2 billion Christians around the world celebrate Easter. More than 2 billion people share their own experiences of the risen Lord. More than 2 billion people share their debt free screams with others. More than 2 billion witnesses.
Are we among them? When did we last witness? When did we last share our debt free screams? When did we last share our experiences of the risen Lord with zest and zeal? Or are we still silently wondering what happened?
Is it because we have not pondered how the risen Lord has appeared to us? Is it because it is more difficult to believe God is present in bread and wine, in baptism and confession, in the Word proclaimed and preached by ordinary human beings than it is to believe Jesus rose from the dead? Indeed, God is present to us today, at this moment, but we do not always feel it or cannot articulate what we feel.
Let me share the brief articulated expression of a woman named Sally who became a baptized Christian more than 20 years ago. During the Easter Vigil 1989, Sally – then 62, frail and legally blind – was baptized and received into the Church. Several days later, when asked to share her experience of Christ’s death and resurrection symbolized in baptism, Sally, whose facial expressions and voice reminded one of Carol Channing, exclaimed, “WOW!”
Wow! Wow, Christ is risen and is present to us right now. Does the wow of that experience impel us into the streets like apostles with tongues of fire to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed? Does the wow of Christ Risen sustain me when I return to the humdrum of life’s work? Does the wow of Easter stay with me at home or hospital, in classroom or lunchroom, at the office or the in-laws? Do I feel the freedom of being debt free? Do I feel Victory even when I feel like a loser?
The wow of Easter should take all of us into the world because the world, America, Oklahoma needs Christians who know Christ’s Victory and the deeper meaning of being debt free. John’s Gospel says that the truth will make us free[7] - not comfortable and not respected, but free in the real sense of the word: able to see and do what is right.
In the Christian tradition, freedom is to be used in the service of others. Working to defend the dignity of human persons and the dignity of the human family is an obligation of our freedom. As debt free Christians we are obliged, are we not, to protect the unborn child, the immigrant, the disabled, the elderly. If Christians are not involved in ensuring the dignity and rights of others, then we risk living in a state governed not by justice but by thieves.[8] Bi-partisan thieves at that.
Let me close by asking a question that I pray you ponder as you, like Peter, make your way home this evening. As church, can we remain silent in public and be faithful to Christ at the same time? Working respectfully and firmly to form the public conscience violates no one’s free will. Actively witnessing to our convictions and advancing what we believe about Christian morality in the public life is not coercion. It’s truth-telling.
Let’s tell the world the truth about our faith, about what we believe. Let’s witness to the point that when new neighbors see us walking up their driveway, they will no longer say, “Here come those Holy Rollers,” but, “Here come those Missouri Synod Lutherans.” And when we share with them the good news that we are debt free because Jesus Christ rose to free us from our sins, may we be overwhelmed by the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, and may it keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Amen.

[1] Psalm 122
[2] Luke 24:12
[3] 1 Kings 17:17-22; 2 Kings 4:30-37; 2 Kings 13:21;  John 11:38-44; Luke 7:11-17; Matt. 8:28-43 (Mark 5:1-20,
Luke 8:26-39)
[4] Luke 24:11
[5] Eugene LaVerdiere, Luke. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc. 1986. p. 282.
[6] Luke 24:34
[7] John 8:32
[8] Attributed to St. Augustine

Sunday, April 13, 2014

God Visits His People as a King

God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. … “The time has come,” the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings.”
God visits us as a King is my theme. My focus is John 12:12-19, with an emphasis on verses 14-15: “They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’ And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[1] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
Easter in the Cwynar home meant visiting the Bednarski girls, my mother’s sisters. Most of them lived in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, allowing us to visit Aunts Jane, Jessie, Helen and Stella in 2 days. This childhood revelation reminded me that we’ve done a whole series of sermons focusing on God visits, without defining the term visit. So, let me lay out 3 points. First, the King visits; second, the King is welcomed; and finally, how we respond to the King’s call.
First, the King visits. To visit means to go and stay with a person or at a place for a short time for sociability, business, or curiosity.[2] We visit friends, clients and famous places, like Guthrie.
The word visit is from the Latin visitare meaning "to go to see or come to inspect." By the 13th century, pastors and doctors would visit or "pay a call" to people in their homes. It also means to "come upon or afflict" with sickness or punishment.[3] Depending on who the visitor was, you would either welcome or reject him.
If your visitor arrived on horse, be wary. Throughout Biblical history, horses were the mounts of kings, princes, conquerors, and soldiers. Horses heralded threats of war, and were such a symbol of army strength that God ordered Israelite kings not to keep many horses because He did not want the Israelites to trust in their own resources of strength, but to rely on Him for victory and deliverance from their enemies.[4] A king visiting on a horse implied war, doom and victory.
If your visitor arrived on a donkey, relax. Donkeys hold the distinction as being one of the earliest and most frequently mentioned animals in the Bible. A king visiting on a donkey symbolized industry, peace and wealth.
Visits imply welcomes. Welcome to my second point – the King is Welcomed. … Today, we welcome kings and heroes with parades. In Jesus’ day, when they welcomed heroes, people laid cloaks and leafy branches on the ground and shouted “Hosanna!”, a jubilant praise for victory or salvation.
John tells us that Jesus’ disciples did not understand these things.[5] What did these “things” mean?
Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem foreshadowed victory over his enemies. Of the four accounts, however, only John wrote that the crowd took palm branches, which symbolized victory in Jewish culture[6], and went out to meet Jesus, singing Psalm 118, a processional hymn for the feast of tabernacles. The significance is that Psalm 118 announces triumph[7] because of reliance on Yahweh, echoing Israel’s jubilant Exodus chant.[8] Shouting hosanna – a phrase invoking God to save them – victors with branches in hand proceeded to the altar where they offered sacrifice.
John’s point? Before ascending the Cross in His hour of triumph, Jesus knew He had won. That is why Scripture records the people singing “Hosanna.” Jesus was victorious - and humble.
Jesus was humble to the point that when others declared Him King of Israel, He brushed aside the comment or withdrew into the mountains.[9] Yet, Jesus knew His entry into Jerusalem demonstrated His fulfillment of prophecies from Genesis through Malachi. That is why John records these “things” – the King’s visit and how the King is welcomed – and now we ponder how we might respond to such a King.
For a moment, imagine yourself as a disciple in John’s Gospel, who did not understand these things when they occurred, but now you do. You understand Jesus is the King who conquered Satan, sin and death in His victorious Hour, and now He visits you. The king asks you to follow Him. … Are you willing to follow Him? ... Really?! … Are you truly interested in following a man riding a donkey?
People are willing to follow inspirational, heroic leaders like Patton, Grant or Washington, and sometimes only if they got paid. Even Napoleon Bonaparte possessed the charisma to inspire multitudes of men. In his own words, Napoleon said, “I know men, and I have inspired multitudes to die for me. A word from me and the sacred fire was kindled in their hearts. I do, indeed, possess the secret of this magical power that lifts the soul, but I could never impart it to anyone. None of my generals ever learned it from me; nor have I the means of perpetuating my name and love for me in the hearts of men.”[10]
Napoleon knew that, unlike Jesus, inspirational leaders do not possess the means of perpetuating their names and others’ love for them. Only Jesus Christ possesses the means of perpetuating His name and love for Him. The difference between dynamic human leaders and Jesus Christ? They are dead. Jesus Christ is a living Person who is present and calls me now. He visits us with grace to expand our hearts which gives us the desire and generosity to do something about this disordered universe. Jesus does not simply say, “Your sins are forgiven.” He calls you to follow Him … on your own donkey.
You need your own donkey because you must ride in peace extending your victorious palm branch to the conquered enemies of this world and let them know – as you know – that they are loved by our victorious Christ and by us. Otherwise, what’s the point of being a Christian if we don’t accompany Christ as compassionate companions? What’s the point of observing Palm Sunday and Good Friday if we can’t say to the world’s Barabbases, “I love you”?
In other words, the King’s visit implies a call to saddle up and ride with Him into the world. His call, His challenge forces us to ask: Is our spirituality authentic if we exclude public issues that conflict with our self-interests? As sinful humans, we have an inordinate hunger for wealth, honor and power. The Word of God, the call of the King, is not held in honor by the world. There is another line in Psalm 118 that reads, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”[11] To heed the King’s call, to obey God’s Word, to welcome the visiting King suggests dishonor in the world’s eyes, but victorious honor in God’s.
I offer one example of a man who embraces the visiting King and accepts his call. Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission and author of “The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence”, pinpoints a basic source of entrenched poverty overlooked by well-intentioned outsiders: corrupt government officials who turn their heads while criminals victimize the poor. For example, 90% of murders in Mexico go unsolved. Haugen reminds us that the church played a critical role in the struggle against child labor and for civil rights. He urges Christians to accept their biblical, prophetic role and use their moral voice to ensure the state protect the weakest in our world.[12]
To embrace biblical justice and heed our King’s call, you don’t have to start an international justice mission. Simply embrace His call and apply biblical justice to whatever you do in life.
I close by quoting the prolific Scripture scholar and pastor, NT Wright, “We must speak truth to those with power so we can speak love to those without it.”[13]
We must speak truth to those with power so we can speak love to those without it. When we accept our biblical, prophetic role and use our moral voice to ensure those with power protect those without love, because we know Christ our King has already conquered Satan, sin and death, this we know: We are simply donkey riders with palm branches responding to the call of the King. Ride with God, my friends. Ride with God. And may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Amen.

Resonate – Creed

[1] Psalm 122
[5] John 12:16
[6] See 1 Maccabees 13:51
[7] 118:7
[8] 118:14; Exodus 15:2b
[9] John 1:49; 6:15
[10] Mark Link, Decision, p. 11.
[11] Psalm 118:22
[12] Timothy C. Morgan, “Why We’re Losing the War on Poverty,” Christianity Today, January/February 2014, pp. 56-59.