Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.
with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.
MEN OF UNDERSTANDING.
(Preached at an Ordination in 1874.)
"Men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do."—1 CHRON. xii., part of verse 32.
IT is one of the notes of the Church of God that it has a marvelous adaptation to different times, circumstances, and races. Unvarying as to the unchanging faith, she draws forth from her treasures things new and old. The Tree of Life, ever from the one root, through the one stock, from branch, and twig, and stem, she is throwing out, with unfailing vitality, leaf after leaf for the healing of the nations. Because she is the body and spouse of Christ, because in her indwells the Eternal Spirit, she has a certain fitness for every possible situation in which she may be placed. She has a remedy for every ill, a relief for every want, an answer to every cry. Slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization, peace and war, learning and ignorance, are alike, to her, only providential means of helping onward the children of men. She is like her Divine Lord, now in the midst of the doctors, now in the carpenter's shop, now in the crowded city, now on the lonely mountain-top, now casting a pitying glance on Magdalen, now denouncing woe on scribe and Pharisee, now bending in agony, now in the midst of innumerable hosts of angels; yet ever, from the glance of her eye, from the touch of her hand, from the intercession of her prayers, from the sternness of her wrath, from the majesty of her triumph, from the wail of her humiliation, nay, even from the hem of her garment, and her very shadow as she passes, sending forth strength, and healing, and peace.
Of this characteristic of the Church, her ministry must, in a measure, be sharers. Whatever she is, she is only it because she is the body of Christ. Because He lives, she lives also; in Him she lives and moves and has her being, and they too, as members of Him and of her—His body and spouse—partake of her powers and energies. This indeed is true of all Christians, but of the ministry it is more especially true, because to them is a promise of Christ's presence and indwelling beyond that which is given to other men. To them He says, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." In short, as there never has arisen, and never can arise, any possible event or conditions, from the fall to the hour of judgment, for which she is not the refuge and stay of man, so in every age and all circumstances must and will her ministry be "Men of understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do."
In taking up the subject which the Church, by the rubrics in the Ordinal, imposes upon me, I think I shall be complying with the spirit of its direction if I consider under what conditions the ministry must be exercised, if one would be a "man of understanding of the times." And yet I must guard myself, at once, against a possible misapprehension. The Christian clergyman a time-server? God forbid! To truckle to the spirit of the age, to submit to the tone of the day, to make no protest against mere outcries, to be led along by popular notions, popular sins, tendencies to evil which captivate the multitude—this is no part of a Christian clergyman's duty. He must stand alone against the world, if God call him to it. He must surrender father and mother, wife and children, yea, and his own life also, if need be, to bear witness unto Him who said, "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! "
But not necessarily are the tendencies of the times wholly evil. They are often the yearnings of humanity after God. They are the blind gropings after that Invisible Master who "was lifted up from the earth to draw all men unto Him." The world of to-day is still on the whole a baptized world, pervaded by the spirit of Christianity. Its movements are not entirely evil. Nay, like all great moral movements, no matter what of ignorance, of folly, of wickedness there may be in them, no matter how often they need in part to be protested against, they have in them their own remedy. Used aright, passed through the crucible, tried like gold in the fire, brought to the foot of the Cross, tested by the faith once delivered to the saints, guided heavenward, they become tides in human affairs, which move toward that glorious day which is yet to dawn, when upon our astonished vision shall burst the "new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness."
I do not, of course, mean to say that there are not in the world impulses wholly devil-born, tendencies to destruction and disintegration which we must fight to the death. But the insight which shall distinguish between these and those, which shall be able in the former case to discern between good and evil, to find the remedy in the tendency itself, by developing what is good and true in the movement, to overpower what is base and false—this in the State is Christian statesmanship; this in the Church is the "knowing what Israel ought to do," and is that blessed wisdom which will make the Christian minister "a man of understanding of the times."
Let me dwell then for a moment upon a marked tendency of the times. Men do not regard authority as they once did. To say that the fathers taught it, or the Church proclaims it, or that it has been held from immemorial time, or even that the Holy Scriptures assert it, does not command the unwavering assent of those who hear, as once it did. Men wish to learn the reasons of things. It is not enough to know that men in bygone generations have been satisfied; we must be satisfied also. In proportion as men are able to investigate, they search in every direction. They test Scripture by science. They find out the laws by which things are governed, and invade what once was deemed to be the realm of the supernatural, and show that the miracles of one age are sometimes the science of another. They pierce the bosom of the earth, and bring the hidden treasures of darkness to overthrow ancient traditions as to the age of the world and the antiquity of man. They trace history to its source and language to its primal roots. From Egyptian pyramids and Assyrian mounds they bring forth ancient inscriptions to confirm or contradict the sacred story. Each animal that moves, each plant that grows, each living thing, no matter what the order to which it belongs, is searched to bear its witness to the truth. Nay, they stand face to face with life itself, and dare to ask that impalpable, mysterious thing whether it comes from the Eternal God, or springs into existence by spontaneous power. Through all the region of created things, from stars that move in their courses down to the tiniest flower that blooms, they cry to all the visible and temporal, "Speak to us of God!" Nay, they search into man himself, and strive to understand the laws of his being, and the working of his will, and the deep recesses of that hidden spirit which makes him most like unto God. They cry unto their souls, and say, "In thy weakness and feebleness, in thy strength and majesty, in the shortness of time and the sorrows of humanity, tell me, O my spirit, has God revealed Himself to thee, and dost thou know that thou shalt never die?" O awful questionings of this day of ours! O pleading cries that go to Heaven from an unsettled world! To hear them aright is to be "a man of understanding of the times."
I am well aware that there are those who go far beyond such questions as those I have mentioned. I know that there are those who, whether from moral guilt or intellectual pride, pass beyond the proper bounds of reasonable inquiry, and the due search into truth, and, rearing their Babel-towers to heaven, proclaim another religion than the eternal truth of God. Reason bears a threefold office toward revealed truth, and within that province is indeed supreme, but only there.
1. It is the province of Reason to state in terms that the understanding can apprehend what the truths are which Revelation has declared.
2. It is the province of Reason to state as clearly what revealed truth is not; for, while the Revelation of God is above and beyond Reason, it never can be contrary to it.
3. It is the province of Reason to investigate and test, by every process which the mind of man can conceive, the testimony which is borne to the truth of Revelation. The more it tests this testimony, whether it be by scientific research, or archaeological investigation, or the study of the mind of man, the more will that testimony stand forth sure and unshaken, the foundation of God, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever!
But to go beyond the threefold office of the reason, and sit as a judge of revealed truth, and dare to say that this or that is untrue because it does not commend itself to the finite judgment—this is that very folly of which the Psalmist writes when he says, The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God."
Of course, I must not be misunderstood as undervaluing the power of authority. Most men were not intended to be independent investigators of the truth of religion, but to receive it from others. I suppose the family and the Church were mercifully established, to send down from age to age the truth of God to children and to childlike hearts. Life is too short, and its duties are too many, for men to be laying over and over again the very foundations of religion. There is a great deal of unreality in some of the doubt of the time. There are people calling themselves skeptical, who only differ from Christians in having taken for their authoritative teacher some newspaper or review, some man of science, or modern philosopher, or popular preacher, instead of the grand old creeds, and the truths for which martyrs have died, and the unshaken faith of the Catholic Church. They are as much submitting to authority as the little child, only to authority not as reliable. But I pass to another note of the times, and weave it with what I have already said, because the answer the minister of God must give to both is one and the same.
More people, in this western land, are led away from God by a sort of every-day materialism than by scientific doubt. They are practical men and women. They get lead and copper from the mines of Lake Superior, or gold and silver from California and Arizona. They plant huge farms upon the wide prairie-land, and bring to market innumerable bushels of corn. They hold real estate until either taxes ruin them or great cities make them rich. They build railroads, they deal in money and in stocks. Even if their work be professional, it is all directed to the furtherance of material ends, manufactures and commerce, trade and merchandise. Nor is this so with the rich and successful only: the pursuit of the food and raiment wherewith a man ought to be content—and rarely is—is just as eager and soul-engrossing. I do not for a moment mean to undervalue honest, faithful, hearty labor of any sort. To subdue and replenish the earth, to make the best and the most of what God has given us, is well. Only, too often, there lies underneath it the acceptance of the real and tangible, the things the body craves, the ear hears and the eye sees, instead of the invisible and unearthly. It is the utter absorption of the whole being, with all its powers and faculties, in what every one confesses is fleeting and temporal.
Is it a wonder that religion itself should be permeated by this lurking materialism? The soul, engrossed in earthly pursuits, scouts all mysteries. It wants its religion to be as practical as its business. A comfortable church, where people may be able to listen pleasantly or doze easily; music that shall gratify the ear; preaching that shall please the mind, and not too unpleasantly trouble the conscience; pleasant talks on current events, nice discussions of literary topics, clever dissertations on moral subjects; a minister hired and well paid because his abilities deserve it, with the honest determination to break the contract when his voice fails or age enfeebles: this is no unfair picture.
On the other hand, a priesthood endowed by God with the blessed commission to bind and to loose; sacraments capable of carrying grace; the mighty power of prayer; the invisible ministrations of the angels; the mystery of the Eternal Trinity; the glory of the Incarnate Son; the Cross of Christ with its heights and depths, with its story of sorrow, suffering, and shame; the deep burden of sin; the awful powers of the world to come; the bands that bind the living and the dead in one communion; the power, and authority, and mission, and unity of the Church of God: all these seem shadowy, and unreal, and unpractical. Yet still beyond these voices stretches the invisible, spiritual world. The throne of God is there. Around it is the rainbow, like unto an emerald; and before it the unruffled peace of the crystal sea. "With the voices of the four and twenty elders, and the unnumbered hosts of angels and of men, is blended the unceasing cry of the four living creatures, embodying all created nature, saying: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts." The ceaseless burden of prayer, the victories of faith, the mysterious working of the sacraments, the wondrous conquests of the Church of God, the upturned glances of little children, the intercession of litanies, the sighs of penitents, the prayers of the saints beneath the altar, are all borne into that mystic presence by Him who is in the midst of the throne, the Lamb as it had been slain. Let men reason as they will, let them grasp at what is earthly and material as they may, the heavenly places still continue, and men are set down in them in Christ Jesus.
And yet underneath both scientific doubt and ordinary materialism lies the same hidden cause. It is the realistic tendency of the time, which clamors for facts, which seeks to grasp and realize and appropriate and understand all hidden truths, which will not rest until it has gone whithersoever human reason go, and found the laws which eternal wisdom has fashioned for the government of the world. This, which produces minute scientific investigation and philosophic study, gives to the practical man his active energy, his desire to conquer space and time with new devices of travel and communication. It is this which makes him seek to turn the hidden forces of nature, which seemed to be the very voice of God, into the obedient servant of the humblest man. It is this which makes him strive to conquer and subdue the earth, and fill with crowded cities the waste places of the wilderness. It is this which makes him set even an undue value on money and food, and land and houses, and farm and merchandise, as if they were to last for ever; and while the passing years wail forth, "Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes," answer back, "No particle of matter ever perishes; the energy that seems to vanish is only transferred; the force that disappears, appears again"; while coarser minds echo the old response, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die."
But if what we have stated be a tendency of the times, how shall the Israel of God and the minister of Christ gather healing from the poison and a remedy from the disease? Must it be by showing how scientific research is for ever answering its own doubts, and bearing witness to the truth it seemed to imperil? Must it be by showing how poor and little are the noblest results of man's labor, whether in the realm of thought or action, in the presence of sin, sorrow, and death? Must it be by calmly repeating the truth which never alters, the creeds which survive all changes, the faith once and for ever delivered to the saints? Must it be by clever arguments, in proof of sacramental grace, and the law of prayer, and the mysteries of religion, and the testimony of miracles and prophecy? All this is well; but there is something beyond these, which seems to be the very remedy which is the burden of the lesson I would teach to-day.
The answer to a realistic, practical, material age, by the Church and the ministry, is a realistic, practical, and in some sort material one; nor has the Church along the ages failed to give it. A life of supernatural self-denial on the part of her ministry; the surrender of home and friends, wife and children, money and lands; the burning love for the souls of men which is satisfied with nothing short of their salvation; the earnest, practical, faithful labor of the members of the Church; the watching night and day by the bedside of the suffering and the sick, the tender care for little children, the unfailing mercy which seeks for Christ's sheep scattered abroad, wherever they are; the hospital with the sisters of charity; the reformatory for the abandoned and lost; the church open all the day long for the passer-by to kneel and pray; the offered sacrifice of the Holy Communion in the early morning; louder than all arguments, better than any logic, these will convince a practical and material age of the truth of that supernatural world, of which the apostle declares that the things which are unseen are eternal.
Does any one doubt whether these are a sufficient answer? Does some one scornfully ask, Is this all the reply the Church and its ministry can make to scientific research, or philosophic study, or the soul-engrossing love of material things?" I answer: In the face of two ever-present realities this response will be powerful beyond all human reckoning. These two realities are Sin and Death! What can science or philosophy or earthly possessions say to the soul weighed down with a sense of guilt—what can they cry to the sorrow-laden spirit as it stands beside the still cold form of father or mother, wife or child, or feels itself the icy touch of the King of Terrors? Then, O my friends, the Cross of Christ, the invisible world, the rest of heaven, the Communion of Saints, the work of the priesthood, the presence of Jesus—these, and these alone, can be the staff and the stay, the refuge and the rescue, of the soul of man!
But, O my brother, how mighty in your soul must be the grace of God, that you may be able to make this answer in this day of ours! There must be simple child-like faith which never hesitates or wavers, which is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." There must be careful, earnest prayer, and the labor for that divine wisdom which is able to convince the gainsaying. There must be prudence and skill, and such a love for souls as will overpower, and subdue, and correct each fault and failing of the natural man. There must be utter self-surrender of the affections, mind, and will to Him who will accept no divided service. There must be, if you would do your work well, the clear understanding of that blessed sacramental system, by which it pleases God to regenerate and wash the sin-stained soul white in the blood of Jesus, and bring the forgiven penitent into the presence of the Invisible King.
Nor must you look for success and easy days. To him who would do his Master's work aright, there must be the crown of thorns, the Cross his Master bore. And does this seem too much to call you to, my son? Does the heart shrink and the eye fill with tears, with what, if you care not for the world, its honors, its applause, or its approval, is sure to come? Then, remember, there is no peace on earth like the peace of self-surrender; no happiness below like the happiness of self-denial; no love of father or mother, wife or children, like the love of the souls for whom the Master died. And, oh, so soon the days pass by and the years! Life is only a dream that for ever vanishes. Beyond are the only realities; there, and only there, is the true life of souls!
Whether it be sooner or later, it will be but a moment when the sunset gates shall unbar, and from the glorious city flash the eternal splendor. Forth shall the King in His beauty come, with all His shining train, and welcome you—if the work has been truly done—to the land where there is no more sorrow nor crying, but the Peace of God for ever and ever!