Archive for February, 2012

A couple of weeks ago the local newspaper in Roanoke, Virginia had a Sunday feature article on the return of the evening soaps as in the past when “Dallas” ruled the night air.  The writer listed several that are currently on television and one  of the most popular  is “Downton Abbey”.  It is PBS’ biggest hit ever (an aside: they sure do not need federal tax dollars!).  I watch it.  I have been hooked.

For those who do not know about Downton Abbey:  it is set in England, in Downton Abbey, the estate of the Grantham Family, Lord and Lady Grantham and their 3 daughters and the Dowager Countess, Grandma-ma (played with skilled aplomb by Maggie Smith:  most familiar to most in Harry Potter).  It is also a type of replay of an older Masterpiece Theatre series, “Upstairs, Downstairs”:  it also about the staff, their lives, struggles, hopes and dreams along with the family.  The time is pre-World I, World War I and post-war. It is so popular that folks have Downton Abbey parties as they watch it, but  alas it is on Sundays and that is staff’s night off at Reverend House.

I think there is something different about this “soap” than the usual soaps evening or daytime.  Evening and afternoon soaps are all about beautiful people in perpetual heat.  I think, for instance, that Greek mythology is  simply divine soap operas.  But “Downton” is different. The Granthams are nobility and especially, Lord Grantham, try to act noble. Most of the staff, even in the midst of war, attempt to do the right thing and act noble.  Now do they?  By no means!  In fact some of the funniest movies and TV shows are about upper class people, ‘noble’ acting downright ignoble and snobbish, see the Marx Brothers, especially “Duck Soup”, the Three Stooges (the ones with Curly, please!), “Cheers” and “Frasier”.  And Downton is no different:   when they act less than noble the results can be funny…and also dangerous.

In one episode, for instance,Lord Grantham takes a shine to the upstairs maid and vice versa.  They have a tryst that includes kissing, but no suggestion of intercourse.   Lord Grantham knew he was doing wrong by committing adultery with her(btw, remembering that adultery is not only ‘doing the deed’ but also of the eye and desire gone awry (see Matthew 5:28) but he stopped it with her help.  Well, noble…to do the right thing against even the lusts of the flesh.  Lenten theme?  Maybe.

And do we even speak of being noble in our day?  We conveniently separate personal and public roles with the excuse, “Oh, what he does in his spare time…” in a kind of sociological schizophrenia as when all the talk was about President Clinton.  But character is one.  The devil separates the unity.  And the characters of Downton Abbey know the meaning of character or want to.  Yes, they dress the part!  Never the less, would it not be something to say of a President:  he acted nobly.  We sing this of the saints:

Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

We are called to fight nobly as His army.   3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.4No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.-2 Timothy 2

There is  a nobility in man from the get-go:  made in the image of God.  But when Adam only looked to himself to be God, eventually his son Cain killed his brother Abel. The image was cracked and yet the shards of the image still reflect the Creator’s work:

“…what is man that you are mindful of him,
   and the son of man that you care for him?

 5Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
   and crowned him with glory and honor.
6You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet,
7all sheep and oxen,
   and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
   whatever passes along the paths of the seas.” Psalm 8

It as if the Landlord had set His stewards over His vast holdings to care for them.  But alas, this image can destroy rapaciously what He has given Man as is attested in Scripture and as Scripture is life, real life, in our lives and His Law calls to account, and we must say to live:  we have sinned, we repent.  We have accepted such ignoble images of man as an animal, just an evolutionary accident not waiting to happen,  or a consumer or an object.  Man  sings, dances, paints, builds, creates and yet is dust who destroys. And God became man to restore him.

Victor Frankl, German psychologist, was a survivor of the concentration camps.  In his widely popular book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the nobility and ignoble nature which exists side by side in man, he discovered in the night…with hope in the darkest hours of our civilization:

“Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” 

Maybe they so entered because the noble Word ennobled them to remember Who’s they were.  They were not sold even by even seemingly all-powerful evil.  They were free.  Noble.  And the anti-Christ hated the Word of the Lord God of Israel and His Church and still could not stop it from their lips and their hearts.

I know, I have come a long way in a short distance from an evening soap to Nazi Germany!  Sadly,  it was historically a short distance from the time in which this show is set, from November 11th,  1918, the end of World War I, at the 11th hour,  to September 1, 1939, and the armies of darkness invading Poland…only 21 years later.  It does not take long to give into our base desires.  We can see what man can do and has.  We can see the way man is and can be in Jesus Christ and who Jesus Christ is, “…towering o’er the wrecks of time” (from the first stanza, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory”, LSB #427)  And it is only a short distance to call upon Him while He is near in an ennobling prayer:

On my heart imprint Thine image,
Blessed Jesus, King of Grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Have no power Thee to efface.
This the superscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s Foundation,
And my Glory and Salvation.

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Give me Thy grace, good Lord, To set the world at naught;

To set my mind fast upon Thee And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths;

To be content to be solitary; Not to long for worldly company; By little and little utterly to cast off the world, And rid my mind of all the business thereof,

Not to long to hear of any worldly things, But that the hearing of worldly fantasies may be to me displeasant;

Gladly to be thinking of God, Piteously to call for His help;

To lean unto the comfort of God, Busily to labour to love Him; To know mine own vileness and wretchedness, To humble and meeken myself under the mighty hand of God.

To bewail my sins passed; For the purging of them patiently to suffer adversity;

To walk the narrow way that leadeth to life, To bear the cross with Christ;

To have the last thing in remembrance, To have ever afore mine eye my death that is ever at hand;

To pray for pardon before the Judge come, To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me;

For His benefits unceasingly to give him thanks; To buy the time again that I before have lost;

To think my most enemies my best friends; For the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred. These thoughts are more to be desired of every man than all the treasure of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all upon one heap. Amen.

(As cited in For All the Saints: A Prayer Book for and by the Church, Volume III: year 2)

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Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.

Then!  When?  After the Descent of the Holy Spirit, after the Voice  speaking from above had said:  This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well please (Matthew 3: 17)  And since he did everything in order to teach us, and suffered everything for the same reason, so here also He willed to be led by the Spirit into the desert, to meet the devil in combat, and so that no one should be shocked if, after receiving baptism, he suffers even severer temptations: as though something strange had happened; but that he may learn to stand firm and endure with fortitude what happens according to the ordinary rule of our life.

 This is the reason you received arms; not to stand at ease, but to fight. And God will not prevent temptations from rushing against you.

  •      And this first that you may learn how stronger you are now than before.
  •     Then that you learn prudence; so as not to be overbold because of the greatness of the gifts you have received: for temptation will steady you.
  •       Thirdly, so that the evil demon, who is uncertain whether you have renounced him or not, may not be left in doubt, through this test of temptation, that you have abandoned him, and wholly renounced him.
  •    Fourthly, that you may become stronger, and more tempered than steel.
  •     And fifthly, that you may receive a kind of indication of how precious is the treasure you have been given. For the devil would not have attacked you had he not seen you now held in honor. It was because of this he attacked Adam, because he saw he was given great dignity. For this reason he attacked Job, because he saw him raised up and honored by the God of all. It was because of this He Himself says: Pray that ye enter not into temptation (Mt. 24: 14)
  •     For this reason the Evangelist speaks of Jesus as, not going, but as being led; and this was according to the design of our salvation: implying that we are not as it were to leap into temptation, but, if we are led there, to stand firm against it. And consider where it was the Spirit led Jesus. Not into a city, nor into the market place, but into the desert.  For since He wished to attract the evil spirit, He gives him occasion, not alone from his hunger, but also from the place. For then especially will the devil attack us, when hem sees us alone and separated from„ each other. It was in this way he attempted the woman in the beginning: approaching as she was alone, and her husband absent. For when he sees us in the company or others, and united, he does not dare attack us. For this special reason should we ‘come frequently together’: so that it shall be more difficult for the  devil to attack us.

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Post-Ash Wednesday

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Sermon Text:  1 Corinthians 15:

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. 

“Image is everything” was an ad slogan a few years back.  We bear two images, literally icons the Scripture tells us:  the icon of the man of dust and the icon of the man of heaven.   Those images are everything. We bear these images at the same time.

The Lord formed man out of the dust, literally in the Hebrew, the “adam”, the man from the “adamah”, soil.  He breathed into the man the breath of life.  He still does.  “After God had so bountifully offered proof of His goodness, our first parents behaved as though the Devil intended only good and God intended only ill.” (Franz Delitzsch)  They bought that lie after the dialogue with the father of all lies.  And the Lord said to our first parents:

for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

The very words this ancient practice of the Church cites on this day. The same words spoken at a graveside as the casket is lowered into the adamah.   This is our “natural body”, a “living being” that was meant to live days without end, but now in sin it now returns to an end: dusty death.  The natural is first, the icon of the man of dust.

We live by the Lord’s promise alone, His Word alone, His Word who became flesh, the last Adam, life-giving Spirit:  Jesus Christ.  He is from heaven.  He became entirely as the first man:  dust, a natural, fleshly body… and He became the now fallen and sinful and disgraced natural body.  We heard again on Transfiguration Sunday He shone like the light of heaven, un-borrowed, uncreated light of heaven so that it is unmistakable:  God in man made manifest.  The man and the woman were created by the Lord in His own image, in His own image He had them, male and female, the stamp of His divinity.  Jesus Christ was and is this image before the Fall, yet would on Golgotha become utterly broken and debased image of the man of dusty sin and death. He became sin. He is risen.  He is the life-giver bearing in His hands the marks of the Cross.

Too oft  we say, oh it’s just natural to do such and such.  To eat, yes, but not to over-indulge.   To drink beer and wine, yes, but not to become wasted.  To love, yes, but not to love outside of marriage.  To speak, yes, but not to curse and swear.  To earn money, yes, but not to lust after more and more. To live, yes, is natural, but not to die.  If it were then even when the oldest die, we should not grieve, but we do because of love, because to live is Christ.  We oft say something is “natural’, we  mean the  fallen human nature not the human nature God intended, which man upended and which Christ Jesus has amended.  Christian, in John Bunyan’s famous allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, said, The wages of sin is death, so why work for such lousy wages?  Lent, literally means spring-time, this spring time of the Church is for a renewed struggle between the man of dust and the Man from heaven, a spring cleaning by the Holy Spirit in body and soul, in our use of words, money and food in daily living.  Not that the fallen can gain salvation  by such but to love ever more the Savior and do His will as His blood–bought people.  The reward is the Father Himself, taught the Son, in bodies and souls clean by His Word in faith to pray His Word., not the vain-glory of self-admiration in this world of sin and dust.

I came across in the internet, a USA Today article about Episcopalian priests offering “Ashes to go” on the street.  I can’t make this stuff up. There is a website, of course, Ashes to go and from that site:  “It’s Ash Wednesday, and you’re invited to wear your ashes, to claim repentance, grace and deep relationship with God for the challenges of your daily life.”  No!  We have these ashes to remind us what wears us down:  the flesh, the world and the devil.  We do not wear them and so “claim repentance, grace…” etc.  The Lord never says we are to wear ashes and so gain grace!  That’s not faith, that’s a man-made work. By grace given we gain faith, we gain Jesus Christ and the Father in the bonds of the Holy Spirit.  But He has told us, in a more literal translation of the last verse of the sermon text:  “And as we wore the image of the man of the dust, we will also wear the image of the man of heaven.”  In the meantime, which is a mean time, we are clothed in Christ Jesus through baptism and repentance as it says in Galatians:  that’s His promise day by day, today is the day of salvation.

.IN our spiritualized Christianity, which denies the goodness of the body created by the Lord, relegating it to a playground of our lusts, the refreshing hope in Jesus Christ, risen bodily from the dead, is the hope of the new heavens and the new earth and the resurrection of the body.  We were made body and soul, and the “and” in “body and soul” is a connective and not an additive.  We were redeemed body and soul in Jesus Christ, true man and true God;  and that “and” is likewise not a additive but a connective. This is our hope in the Valley of the Shadow that we will be fully clothed:  4For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”  5He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.(2 Corinthians 5:  4-5) So that by faith in His grace, we obtain more and more of His Life in the midst of death and be of good courage, walking by faith, not sight, to please the Lord Who has redeemed us.  Image is everything, everything we have and will have in the icon of the Man from heaven.

On my heart imprint your image,
Blessed Jesus, king of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Never may your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation!

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