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.
GATHERING UP THE FRAGMENTS.
(Preached at Racine College, the last Sunday after Trinity, 1878.)
"Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost."—ST. JOHN vi., part of verse 12.
As we grow older, beloved, and look back every now and then upon the lapse of time, there is no memory more sorrowful than the memory of what we have lost. In what we have gained and kept, there is still the joy of possession and the hope of the future; but there is a weariness, an emptiness, a blank desolation, about that which is no more. Like the sound of the cold earth as it rattles on the coffin of the dead, like the dull sighing of the wind in the leafless trees of winter, there are no words so melancholy as "gone, gone for ever."
Life passes very quickly, and marks its way as it passes by the fragments that it drops. Youth fades away, and age comes on apace. Beauty vanishes; and the soft voice and the sparkling eye, time mars them all. They have had their season, and their season is over. The time of laughter and the time of dancing, the time of music and the time of joy, gardens and orchards, servants and maidens, they have vanished out of sight. More than this, friends and loved ones have gone with them. The long array of acquaintances, the intimacies of a little while—Death or his twin brother Forgetfulness has borne them away. Like the "bird that parts the air with the light motion of her pinions, but leaves no trace behind; like a post that hasteth by, or the memory of a guest that tarries but a day," we know them no longer.
But it may be said that all this is no cause of sorrow to the Christian. For what is the loss of beauty to him that has the eternal beauty of the King of glory? and what is the fading of youth to the endless years of eternity? and what are joy and music to the hymns of heaven and the courts of the redeemed? Nay, more, what is even the loss of friends to him who has them in Paradise, in the bosom of his Master, at the feet of the elect, in the Communion of Saints!
True indeed, beloved, and thank God it is so; and yet to the faithful child of God the past has its memories of sorrow. There is a something lost, even for them. Time that is gone, days that were given to sin, years to the world, childhood and its innocence, youth and its loveliness, manhood and its strength, spent not for God but for themselves. True, they have sorrowed; true, they have wept; true, they have looked to the Cross of Jesus for forgiveness; but the memory of the past is ever a sad one. What they might have been, what God meant them to be, what opportunities were given, what fields white to the harvest lay before them, and yet they neglected them! Oh! it was infinite mercy that called them at last, and wounded them most bitterly, that it might heal them with the balm of Gilead and the leaves of the tree of life! Indeed, there is thankfulness mingled with their sorrow: it is a sorrow not without hope, but sorrow still.
And, if this be so to the faithful servant, what must it be to the majority of men, to the most of you, my brethren? Each man before me has a past history—some longer, some shorter, some better, some worse, but a memory of bygone years. It comes before him as I speak, its memories crowd upon him. And what are those memories? Buying and selling, working and toiling, getting and losing house and land, wife and children, learning and study—they come crowding up before him. Bid it wait for a moment, that history of your life, that record of your outward acts. Spread it out before you in its best array. Deck it with every adornment that can make it beautiful. Smooth over its roughness. Put on its best apparel. Do not consider it even as you know God beholds it, not even as your fellow men may have seen it, but as you love to look at it yourself. And what has your life been? Pettiness, miserable selfishness, an empty, objectless thing, that has known no purpose, or, if a purpose, worse than none, because an evil one—with here and there a bright spot, with a sort of drapery of good-nature, and off-handedness, and respectability and honesty perhaps, but on the whole, in the liberal sense of the word, Godless—as the Scripture expresses it, "Without God in the world." But, besides this outward history of the hand, the mouth, and the eye, and the senses, there is another history which I would have you remember. It is the history of the soul—far different, far more wonderful, because it is the history of your immortality. Hid in the heart there lies a life-long history, which no one knows but God and the conscience: calls and providences; a voice that has spoken, a hand that has beckoned to you, time and time again when you have nearly yielded to it; hours when sorrow has almost made you penitent; sickness, when the fear of death has almost led you to God; but all neglected. And besides this negative history, there is also a positive memory of sin, a burden and a weight that can not be forgotten. Time nor riot nor pleasure can efface it. The thought of sin, and then the thought indulged; the first act of sin, with its bitter remorse; the steady habit of sin binding the soul with its icy bands; sins that the day beheld and the night gazed upon, sins of noise and bustle, sins that the watching angels only saw, and the Eternal Judge; but one and all burned into the soul with a hand of fire. And now upon you there is that deep and fearful knowledge which sin only can give, uprooting and overturning; and the heart is growing harder, with feelings blunted and principles weakened and strength gone, and the light within, like a torch blown to and fro by the winds, flickering and waning, is ready to go out in gloom and darkness. Awful retrospect indeed! Life is short. Death is ever at the door, knocking, knocking ceaselessly, now here, now there, and who knows how soon at our own! And yet, the past, what a record does it give! God's days, God's weeks, God's years, the life that is God's, the actions that should have been God's—what have they been given for? Twenty, thirty, forty years have gone by. They look behind us like an ocean we have half-way crossed, and the waves, tossing higher and higher as they press ever on to the eternal shores, cry aloud with a ceaseless lament, "Lost, lost, lost! " Fit thoughts are these to-day, beloved, and, sorrowful though they be, meet to be considered. For to-day we stand at the last Sunday of the Church's year. The civil year follows the sun in its course, and with each new revolution of the earth begins again; but the Church revolves around the Sun of Righteousness, and soon once more will proclaim the advent of the Lord. The voice will be heard in the wilderness, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The old Church year finishes to-day its course of Sundays, the long line of its lessons, its prayers and its sermons, its solemn seasons, its Advent and Christmas, its Lent and Easter. They have gone up to the throne of God, to render their account of the way we have improved them. The Church has done its duty. It has brought before you the life of Christ—Christ born for you, Christ suffering for you, Christ risen for you. It has called you with every voice of joy and sorrow and tender expostulation. It has given you Baptisms and Holy Communions, and fast and festival. It has interceded for you in prayers, and read to you the Holy Word. The life of Christ has been acted over again, as it were. Christ has been set forth evidently crucified among you. And yet, are you any different from what you were, any better, any nearer Christ? Perhaps it is your last Church year. Before another Advent, with its winter cold, and its solemn words, shall be here, you may rest in death. It can not be for ever. The last Church service must come, the last warning words be heard, the last prayers sound on the ear, the last invitation to the Holy Communion be given. It will be like any other Sunday—the sun shining in the sky, or the leaden clouds, or birds singing in the spring, or summer flowers; the same service, the same prayers, the words that have sounded so often, the confession we have not joined in, the absolution that has not absolved us, the praises that have been on our lips but never in our hearts, once again gone through with as before—but the last. For the last time the Creed we should believe in, for the last time the Holy Mysteries offered, for the last time the kneeling worshipers, and the solemn silence of the sanctuary, and the white-robed priest—done with for ever. Oh! ever, on such .a day, must the Angel of pity be standing with his robes all wet with tears, and his golden harp that can only play the dirge of a soul! But some one, whose heart God has touched, may say, "I know that life has been lost, days wasted, years given to sin; the Christian year has gone by, the Church has called, Christ has bidden, and we have not answered. Is it too late now? Has the fiat gone forth? Ye shall call, but I will not answer; ye shall seek Me early, but shall not find Me? I know that the night is far spent and the day at hand. Can I not cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light." Yes, beloved, Advent will soon be here; and we are yet alive, and strength is still given, and grace vouchsafed, and the words of the Scripture breathe of pardon and forgiveness, saying, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, yet shall they be as wool." And the Gospel for the day tells of something still that can be done, even for a wasted life, saying, "Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost." The fragments of a life, beloved! the broken pieces of a mighty whole—they may be gathered up again. And yet, in preaching to most of you, with life so young, with so much before you and so little comparatively to look back upon, it seems almost a waste of words to speak of the fragments of life. I would it were so. Life is so precious, my brethren, that to waste a moment of it is a loss irreparable. To waste boyhood or early manhood may be a deeper evil than the waste of later years; nay, this may be the necessary result of that. "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." But what if this should be true because, when the sower went forth to sow in the springtime, there was only stony ground or the beaten wayside for the seed to fall upon? Each baptized person before me has received the awful gift of baptismal innocence and sacramental grace. He has been washed in the Blood of the Lamb. He is a child of God. Nay, he has received the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Ghost. He has been brought very near to the vision of peace, before the altar of God. Ah! the lives even of little children are broken and fragmentary—much more of boys and young men. Sometimes, indeed—alas! too rarely—it is not so. Now and then one hears of one, of whom the poet's words are true:
"A maiden knight—to me is given
Such love, I know not fear;
I yearn to breathe the airs of heaven
That often meet me here.
"I muse on joys that will not cease,
Pure spaces clothed in living beams,
Pure lilies of eternal peace,
Whose odors haunt my dreams;
"And, stricken by an angel's hand,
This mortal armor that I wear,
This weight and size, this heart and eyes,
Are touched, are turned to finest air.
"The clouds are broken in the sky,
And, thro' the mountain walls,
A rolling organ-harmony
Swells up, and shakes, and falls.
"Then move the trees, the copses nod,
Wings flutter, voices hover clear;
O just and faithful knight of God!
Ride on! the prize is near!
There may be those to whom it is given to see—
"A gentle sound, an awful light!
Three angels bear the Holy Grail;
"With folded feet, in stoles of white,
On sleeping wings they sail,
"Oh! blessed vision, blood of God!
My spirit beats her mortal bars,
As down dark tides the glory slides,
And starlight mingles with the stars."
And that this is not impossible, I bid you remember that in that vast multitude whom the Saviour fed upon the hillside there was one, unnoticed, unobserved, save by that blessed Saint whose day comes first in the Christian year because he led others to Christ—a lad, not a man, from whose humble store came the five loaves and the two fishes which, sanctified and multiplied, fed the hungry multitude, and of which there still remained twelve baskets full, over and above what was given unto them that had eaten.
God grant this may be true of some one before me! But if not, the words of comfort sound on the ear—"Gather up the fragments that remain."
You are strong and active and vigorous; you have physical health and will, and the love of adventure; you are capable of vigorous disobedience and wild living and ungoverned passion; and you have yielded to sin. But the strength and the will and the power still continue yours. Gather it up; it is a fragment that remains. Give it to God: He has need of it all. Waste it no longer. It may yet, by the wonder-working power of God's grace, become more than the original quantity. Or, perhaps, you are gentle and thoughtful and quiet; you are tender and loving and affectionate; not so strong in energy and will, you are mightier far in patience and meekness, and the possibility of that purity of heart, of which it is promised, that they who have it shall see God. Yet you have been idle and careless, and undevout and prayerless; you have become irreverent and selfish, and out of your very timidity and shame has grown falseness. The ear has heard what it ought not to hear; the eye has gazed on evil sights; the tongue has uttered what ought not to be spoken; and the heart, which like a vine clinging to some lofty tree should have grown heavenward, has crawled upon the ground. Yet is there not something left—some love for prayers, or at least a feeling of their beauty; some kindly thoughts that show themselves in deeds; some deeper spring of love, that now and then is kindled at the thought of Him who is fairest among ten thousand and altogether lovely? Bring it to the Master then. He will take it from you, poor as it seems. He will look up to heaven and sigh, perchance, and bless it, and break it, and give it forth in handfuls of blessing and grace.
Brethren, young and old, I care not how much is lost, there is the possibility of this miracle of grace and mercy being wrought in all your lives. What is gone may yet be recovered; you may redeem the time. Only follow your Master to the wilderness if need be. Be hungry and thirsty after righteousness. Let Him feed you. Then, as the years go by, and the flowers fade, and the leaves fall withered and sere, the sound of the Advent trump, come as it will, will be as welcome as the first light of the morning to the weary watcher, or as tidings from home to the captive exile.