Two Sermons II. The Closing of Stewardship
Responsibility creates manhood. No character can progress without it. It controls the forces of virility and is the father of all nobility and moral greatness. The wise man courts it; the fool shirks it.
Responsibility keeps pace with spiritual development. The more a man carries, the more he is capable of carrying. In later life, if he has been faithful to his trust, he does intuitively and without a conscious output of strength what in earlier days called for deliberate and exhausting effort. God fits the back to the burden and the burden to the back.
On the other hand he who runs from opportunity and quails before responsibility begins forthwith to die interiorly. Degeneration sets in; all the finest human qualities fall into decay; capacity wanes and the end is eternal death.
Mere occupation is of small avail as a [107/108] creative force. To occupation must be added moral purpose before activity is worthy of true manhood, and of course the essence of moral purpose is unselfishness. It is a melancholy fad: of science that many a man and woman are in a state of physical and nervous wreck because they are persistently denying their stewardship. They live for themselves; their activities are empty of worthy purpose; they open their hands to receive ten times for every once they extend them to give. The penalty of such an existence is as unerring as it is appalling--it issues in the atrophy of that divine quality which is humanity's chiefest treasure and crown. The medicine that hosts of our army of neurasthenics need is responsibility gladly accepted. At first it will be intolerable as the forces of degeneration raise a cry of rebellion at being disturbed and arrested; but eventually life will triumph over death.
It is plainly apparent to any thoughtful person, then, that the necessity of recognizing stewardship is written indelibly in the constitution of human nature. Before everything else man is a responsible being; that is [108/109] to say, he has something in him which is always being interrogated, beckoned, bidden, and which is capable of answering, moving out and up, obeying. Stewardship denotes a relationship between persons, where one trusts and another responds; where one offers a responsibility and another receives it. So wonderful a gift is stewardship, so joyous in its prospect, so satisfying in its substance, that it is strange that any one refuses to accept it. I suppose, however, that it is due to the fact that we shut our eyes to the bracing and stimulating elements in difficulty and think only of its pains; that we
.... love bondage more than liberty;--
Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty.
But to have drunk deep at the fountain of responsibility is to have tasted of the serenest, purest joy that life affords.
Man began to be man when God appointed him a steward--for that is the bright side of the otherwise sad story of the Garden and its fruit. Human development marched onward as responsibility was enlarged and accepted. The Jewish race was made a steward [109/110] of monotheistic thought and that glowing ideal of righteousness which is its constant companion. Individuals were called to a special guardianship; the prophets had intimacies with God not vouchsafed to the common run of mankind. They were stewards of the inner mysteries and dispensed them among the race.
I say not God Himself can make men's best
Without best men to help Him.
The greatest act of trust that God performed was in committing His Chief Steward to the stewardship of the Jewish people. Our Lord was trusted to men. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not." But in His rejection He found His own opportunity of stewardship. He declared by the object lesson of His life that the worst becomes the best in the hands of the faithful administrator. He came not "to do His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him." His motto was non ministrari sed ministrare--not to be ministered unto but to minister. And so faithful was He to His trust that when He was stripped of what men call [110/111] opportunity, He turned His poverty into wealth and administered it as God's steward--rejection, pain and death rose in an ascending scale of splendour under His touch until they became the treasure-house of the race, and His followers learned to exclaim with simple-hearted ecstasy, "I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake." He taught all men of all time that no matter how slight a man's capacity, no matter how wanting in opportunity, each one was a steward of something,--of one pound if not of ten,--and to each He said: "Occupy till I come."
And so to-day you and I stand before God as His stewards. To Him shall we have to present our record when He bids us give an account of our stewardship," When each man shall have his praise from God." Stewards we are, whether we admit the fact or not; and "it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful." God expects us to use what we have to the utmost for Him: none can be judged by the standard of another, but each by the opportunity and capacity with which he is [111/112] endowed. "The ancients pictured opportunity in the figure of a man covered with a forelock on the front of his head and bald behind. Grasp the forelock, seize the opportunity: if not, it passed by you, and you had nothing to lay hold of. Opportunity is bald behind! Yes, time that fleets and opportunity that passes never to return--these are the gifts and the stewardship of every one who hears me."
And we have come to a moment in a stewardship which we have jointly occupied, when the Master says to me, "Give an account of thy stewardship, for thou mayest be no longer steward." A decade of my ministry closes on this Sunday, and with it my relation to you as pastor and companion. A serious man at such a moment finds that there is no need of his forcing himself to review the past. The years--yes, the weeks and days--troop by and compel him to take note of them as they rise from the dead in judgement. It is not an easy moment: it is a forecast of the time when the completed career will be rehearsed before the great Judge and Master of all and final rewards and penalties meted out. It is not [112/113] success or failure that holds the attention at such a time. A man may have had what the observer holds to be a successful career and yet be stung to the quick by the lash of judgement; or he may have been a faithful failure and go through the ordeal with the sweet peace of a commending conscience. Our ideals as God has revealed them to us and given us capacity to realize them are our judge. A man may have been gifted with a rarely vivid conception of duty, and though he has responded to it so as to be lifted head and shoulders above his fellows, yet relatively to them he may have been a faithless steward. We have a loyal and long-suffering friend in the conscience,--may God teach us to obey it at all costs!--and when it ascends the throne of judgement happy are we if we give heed. If it stings and chides it does so for a purpose,--that we may obey its dictates in days to come with greater readiness and joy. At the close of a stewardship like my own, conscience has a sad work to do. It must speak with its inexorable voice of things done which ought not to have been done, and of things left undone which ought [113/114] to have been done; of inconsistencies and lapses; of shattered ideals and broken vows; of feeblenesses and faithlessness. But a man moves out to meet such judgement while he quivers under it. Though he says to the Master, "I have been an unprofitable servant; the days of my stewardship have been but poorly fulfilled," he is glad that he has not been spared, that conscience has not been less poignant; glad that the praise of men has not hidden from his eyes the true state of the case; glad that he has been measured by a great rather than a petty standard. He who courts judgement courts life and character, freedom and peace. And what makes the pain of it all bearable and prevents one from being overwhelmed by the knowledge of failure is the thought of God's love and considerateness. To-day as my ten years of stewardship sit in judgement upon me I am constrained to exclaim with an aged servant of Christ at the end of his career and with much more reason--"I am thankful that our God is a merciful God." Perhaps the hardest thing to reckon with is the consciousness of human lives having been [114/115] injured by neglect of pastoral duty, or sluggishness in the performance of it. What can possibly remedy this? It has gone past recall. The only conceivable comfort is in the hope that when we, the injurer and the injured, the neglecter and the neglected, meet in the home of perpetual and joyous service above, our heavenly Father will permit me to spend my first and fullest efforts in ministering to those who were injured or passed by here. It may be that the desire to do this will rescue one from the awful fate of Dives, who could not even get to Lazarus or Lazarus to him, because they were separated by such a moral gulf as made it impossible for their lives to touch. For a long time I could not understand how it could be that we would be able to gain the forgiveness of men whom we had injured by sins of commission or omission--God's forgiveness was another thing and intelligible--until it dawned upon me that we should all be in the same plight, that no man is without sin against his neighbour, that in the day of Christ's appearing every one will be dominated by His Spirit, and that the long unbroken stretches [115/116] of the life of the world to come will afford opportunity for undoing the ravages of our badness and unfaithfulness.
Let us review rapidly the character and terms of the stewardship which you and I have shared in common. We came to S. Stephen's Church under the guiding hand of God's Spirit, not for what might be gained, but for what might be given. The charter of this Church makes it a trust to be used in behalf of the people of the neighbourhood in which it stands. It was purchased at the instance of Bishop Brooks for this specific purpose: so that all who came here from elsewhere moved into the arms of a common responsibility. The parish ceases to have any reason for its existence if this is forgotten or neglected. The first duty that came to hand was to visit thoroughly the immediate neighbourhood, to put ourselves in touch with existing agencies for the enrichment of people's lives, and to study the peculiar conditions in which our lot was cast. It resulted in the organization of our guilds and societies, in the establishment of the mission for such as could not be reached by [116/117] the ordinary machinery of parochial life, and the evolution of our industrial and social work. The Rescue Mission from the first has been conducted on the familiar lines of evangelistic work with such modifications as experience suggested, and has been steadily blessed. To some the industrial and social venture--our "neighbourhood work," as it is termed--has not appealed as being spiritual; and I wish, as I turn to it in my thoughts with not a little pride, to emphasize its spiritual quality and its importance to the Church. It is a vicious process of reasoning that differentiates secular and religious, making the former of no account in God's sight. Anything is religious which is done in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. Nor is this a theory: it is in accord with our Lord's explicit statement. Probably the giving a cup of cold water is the most insignificant and the least costly of any conceivable service. Yet if it be done in the name of a disciple it is commended by our Lord as something that is taken cognizance of in heaven. It is further explicitly stated that to perform works of corporal mercy is to [117/118] minister to Christ Himself. Such deeds done from the right motive are lifted up to the level of worship and adoration. Indeed an unbiassed student of our Lord's activities and teaching must conclude that the only difference between secular and religious is the result of the inner spirit of the agent. Anything done from divine motives is essentially spiritual. What makes the body of a man different from the mere animal or from inanimate nature is the soul that energizes it: the difference between the Church and the world is found in the Spirit resident within the former, whereas the world in its evil sense is "society organized apart from" or independently of that Spirit. In precisely the same way the motive is the deed in the individual. The cup of cold water will doubtless be given to the little ones even if the Church has no hand in it. But there is a double loss, a loss to the Church and a loss to the children, when this is so. A loss to the Church in that she fails to recognize the breadth of her responsibility, the dignity of her stewardship, the penetrative power of her influence. The Church then becomes a [118/119] close corporation--a mere worship institute instead of the soul of society and the inspirer of activity. She gets out of touch with men and her voice grows dull and uninteresting in their ears. A loss to the children in that they are robbed of the richness of the deliberate and conscious motive. It is for this reason that I trust S. Stephen's will always have in close relation to the parochial life some such enterprise as is now being undertaken in the name of Christ for His little children. It is the most we can do for many in whose behalf we would fain do more. But it is a stewardship that was once yours and mine; now it is yours. And it is worth while.
What shall I say of our routine parochial life? Even there the failures on the part of your pastor come to rob the joyous memories that throng the mind of some of their fragrance. Your unbroken considerateness that was always ready to excuse defective service, your generosity and thoughtfulness, your earnestness and zeal, your simple trust and confidence, your devoutness and loyalty, bathe me in their sweetness. But side [119/120] by side with these thoughts rise the searching questions--Have I allowed the excuses of friends for work undone to quiet the condemning voice of conscience? Have I wasted my Master's goods through carelessness or apathy? Have I made your generosity a starting-point for more vigorous service? Have I allowed my interior life to grow lack lustre and shallow? Has activity outrun devotion? Have I imposed upon your trust? Have I been scrupulously true to my vows as priest and pastor? Have sympathy and patience always found place in my life? To these and a hundred other queries there is but one answer, and the answer takes the form of a cry that has not a little agony in it, a cry that goes up to the infinite Pity from the depths of the infinite need: Lord, have mercy. It is different now from what it has ever been before. At the end of a year or on the occasion of some spiritual awakening, one was able to make the atonement of reparation--at least to resolve to be truer and better and more stable--because the old relation remained undisturbed. But now things are passing from my hands: the old order [120/121] is finished; my stewardship is complete, and God is asking me if I have been found faithful. And my only reply is, LORD, HAVE MERCY.
But it is not a cry of hopelessness, but of assurance and trust--this appeal for mercy. Whether it is in my case or in yours the mercy comes--comes as it came to S. Peter in the form of a new commission, a new stewardship: "Feed my sheep; feed my lambs." With the closing of the old stewardship a new one opens its portals. Great stretches of opportunity lie ahead with advancing forelock ready to meet the extended hand. You know that I could not separate myself from you lightly, that once and again I have chosen to abide in my place rather than set my hands to new tasks amid new faces. But a day dawned a while ago when unexpectedly and unbidden a voice came and bade me close up the affairs of my stewardship. There was no room for rebellious thoughts: little by little the compulsion of God, so tender, so patient, so inflexible, bent me away from all I love until my face was immovably fixed toward the setting sun, [121/122] where my last and hardest responsibility has its home--and its home is mine. I am glad it is to a difficult task I go; that no soft places invite my feet away from you, my friends.
To-day two of us snap the pastoral tie that has bound us to you. [Rev. H. R. Talbot was also under appointment by the Board as a missionary in Manila.] No more as your official leaders shall we speak to you--though you will always be ours and, as I trust, we yours. Those to whom I have given just cause for offence or grief will, I am sure, forgive me. Those to whom I have been of any service will, I believe, strive to live worthily of their high calling in Christ Jesus our Lord. "And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly: and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ," when "each man shall have his praise from God." In the meantime it behooves us to bind upon our brow the inscription:" It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful."