PREACHED IN GRACE CHURCH
CHARLES LEWIS SLATTERY, D.D.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
I have overcome the world.—St. John xvi. 33.
ONE of the most piercing human cries is the cry for freedom. The man in prison, doomed to the bare walls of his prison-house, pines for the open roads and the wide fields. He longs for freedom to go and come at will. The invalid, through his window, sees the strong pushing their way up and down the street, and groans because he is chained with more than chains to his narrow bed. He longs for freedom to be as other men in the open spaces of life. The ambitious man in a little town, cramped by the monotonous limitations of his work, craves a wider horizon toward which his zeal and energy may reach without hindrance. He too longs for freedom, which he fancies men have who are in great centres. By a strange contrast the man in the great city often feels the oppression of too much life. The very largeness of his opportunity [3/4] bears down upon him: houses and men stand so thick that at times he feels stifled, and he thinks with envy of the friend who lives all his days in the tiny hamlet where nothing ever seems to happen. He too has a dream of freedom. It would be unnatural if every one of you here had not often lifted his hands to God, and begged for freedom. So, this morning, I wish to put to you the important question how, whatever your conditions and limitations, you can be made free.
The swiftest means to a satisfactory answer is an appeal to the experience of our Master, Christ. For He was the Man preeminently free. The poverty of Nazareth could not fetter Him; the pomp of Pilate's court could not dazzle Him. He walked through the crowds of Jerusalem as if He were alone; and in the solitude He held high intercourse. Everything He touched gave to His free spirit its help, nothing hindered Him. The noisy children playing in the market-place; the farmer striding back and forth, sowing his seed; the lake and the mountain-top; the country-road and the thronging city-street; the flinty merchant and the trustful enquirer; the saint and the [4/5] sinner—all became the material in which the freest of lives found its perfect expression. He was poor, and lived in a dingy province, but had He been as rich as all the Caesars and lived in Rome, it would have made no difference. He had overcome the outward circumstances of life. He was utterly free. Nothing mattered but His unconquerable spirit.
Therefore this morning let us try to grasp the words of our Saviour, when He said, "Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world. I am free."
The first conquest was the conquest of sin. His life was the freest of all lives, first because He never allowed sin to have a foothold.
"Whosoever committeth sin," said Jesus, "is the servant of sin." Sin takes away man's freedom. Why does not the petty officer of the law in yonder street do the plain duty in his precinct, and set straight the crooked practice which goes on under his very eyes? Does he not know? Yes. Does he not wish to be a faithful servant? [5/6] Yes. What then binds him? His hands are defiled with bribes, or he has entered into a bargain, or he fears that certain misdemeanours of his own would be revealed, if he did his duty and stopped the villainy. What binds him then but sin! "Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin,"—he cannot be free. What is it which cripples the great officer of the Nation sitting in the seat of power? Men praise him as upright, good,—yet how often his hand weakly allows the bad to push its way to triumph. Why is it? History reveals again and again that it is some mean or dastardly act, done carelessly, almost thoughtlessly, some nefarious compact, some convenient escape from an embarrassing situation, some compromising evasion. Sin lies at his door. Every day that sin binds him more firmly, and his will and his courage and his faith in God are too little to let him shake himself free of the hideous thing. "Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin,"—he cannot be free. What is it which makes it impossible for some men and women to speak the exact truth, to be fair in their judgments of those they do not quite like, [6/7] to be frankly and transparently honest in the small but vital relations of daily life? It is sin,—such a tiny sin, perhaps, that when it began it was hardly worth noticing by parents or teachers,—a habit of exaggerating, a too ready prejudice, a loose way of repeating news, a dash of malice,—and here is the man or the woman to-day, bound hand and foot by the venomous habit. Is the victim not good, kind, efficient, hard-working? Yes, but he is not free. Here is the bosom sin, giving the otherwise good soul over to spite and inaccurate estimates, almost to slander.
"Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and strategems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, tyes of gratefulnesse,
The sound of glorie ringing in our eares:
Without, our shame; within, our consciences:
Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.
Yet all these fences and their whole aray
One cunning BOSOME-SINNE blows quite away."
 "He that committeth sin, is the servant of sin,"—he cannot be free.
In contrast with all this stands the Sinless Christ. We have our faults, our mistakes, our sins. They do fetter us. But if we would be free, the first task is to begin to hammer their shackles off from us. There must be no favorite and convenient bad habits, even quite small ones, tolerated. They are already our masters. And we must be free. Therefore, if we would be free, we must see our sin; admit our sin; with God's help fight it till it is dead.
The second aspect of our Saviour's freedom I find in the fact that He possessed the world; the world did not possess Him.
Over and over in all periods of history people have had the stinging consciousness that things owned them. It was in the effort to get free that Diogenes lived in his jar. It was in the effort to get free that John Baptist did his work in the wilderness. It was in the effort to get free that men in the Church became monks, and [8/9] pledged themselves to poverty, as if poverty were luxury. It was in the effort to get free that certain New England geniuses tried the experiment of Brook Farm, and Thoreau fled to the woods. It is in the same effort to be free that here and there to-day you see men and women leaving all that the world counts worth while, and going off to some desert place where one can have only the barest necessities.
I dare say that not one of us who has lived at all below the surface has escaped this mood. We are apt to see the sublimity of life in its bareness and simplicity, to see how much greater it is without the tawdry trappings which a half-civilized abundance throws about it. We long for the elemental joys of living—the air, the sun, the simple meal, the understanding talk of a friend, the quiet worship of God. There they all are—the elements of life. In contrast with that freedom is the slavery into which men enter when they fret because their income is less than last year; when they grow grey and wrinkled because their houses or their lands have diminished; when they measure the righteousness of a great cause by its possible [9/10] effect on their income, not by the naked test of right and wrong; when this or that cherished, quite worldly, scheme tumbles over upon them. It makes little difference whether people have much or little. The vital consideration is how much the outward possessions of the world engage their attention. The most worldly people are often the poorest, who set before them the ambition of a large outward prosperity as their goal in life. The most unworldly are often those who have most, because they possess what they have as if they had it not, giving it scarcely a thought. I know rich men who I believe could lose to-day all they have, and set about their work with entire cheerfulness to-morrow. The one thing that matters in this regard is that nothing outward and earthly get to seem essential. If you would be free, own things; but let things not own you. They are shadows—they only seem to be. Eternity is long—time flies. Be the free, eternal beings God made you. Do not, in God's Name, become entangled in ephemeral things, which can tie you down to the shadow of life, while life itself is looming before you.
 I never shall forget a person of aspiration and talent who long ago moaned because life was meagre in its outward opportunities. Then the fair child of that house God took to Himself. I never shall forget the penitent cry: "Oh, I thought life narrow and hard. God has taught me in this bitter lesson that joys are not in the things of life, but in the simple love which He gives to all alike."
Be not slaves to the world, men and women. Own as much as God gives you, but let nothing own you. Be free with the freedom of Him who said, "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. I am free."
I shall speak of only one other way in which our Saviour overcame the world. He overcame the dread of death. He transfigured death by His own dying. It became but a gate to richer life. We tend to fall back to pre-Christian ideas, and to exaggerate the place of death. We need to remember with what eagerness the early Christians coveted martyrdom. They died with [11/12] a joy that amazed the cruel Roman world into admiration; there was here something higher than Stoicism. As the Christians died, they seemed to say with their Master: "Be of good cheer; we have overcome the world. We are free."
Even in the world as we now know it we may, time and again, discover how death is the gate of freedom. Going to Scotland one does not look for Walter Scott at Abbotsford. Nor does one care that his body rests at Dryburgh Abbey. The imposing monument at Edinburgh seems to say that he is enthroned in the heart of Scotland. His picture is everywhere. One thinks of him in the wild highlands, in the streets of Glasgow, on the border—all Scotland is his home to-day. So, too, Carlyle is not pent up in the poor little hut at Ecclefechan. But one feels him in the rugged moors and shaggy hills, in the mists and bad climate. The spirits of these men are someway set free till they are identified with the land they loved.
We cannot avoid this morning the thought of the tragedy that befell scores of people yesterday afternoon in a neighbouring street. In the twinkling of an eye they met their horrible death. [12/13] For them we need not grieve. Their troubles were quickly over, and God will care for them. But for those who loved them and depended upon them we must give a most tender sympathy. One of the hard facts that will confront these bereaved people is that it will probably be explained that the death of their loved ones was needless. It will perhaps be discovered that some one was too eager to make money out of human energy to provide the proper safeguards and protections. This does have its bewildering and terrifying aspect; but there is one clear word of comfort. It may be that these poor toilers shall not have died in vain. One cannot be too certain thus soon just what the conditions were, but it looks as if there were criminal disregard of the safety of those who worked in the tall building. It is not necessary now to fix the blame upon any one. But the whole catastrophe must set us to ask ourselves as well as others extremely embarrassing questions. It seems as if a thousand people were at work above the tallest ladder. If this tragedy could make New York stop to think whether it were not allowing men to go too madly and [13/14] disastrously and selfishly in pursuit of money, then these crowded workers would not have died in vain. If this tragedy could make each one of us feel the responsibility for those in quite different surroundings from our own, then too these workers would not have died in vain. If this tragedy could make the city say that buildings should not be so high as to shut out God's sunshine from all except those who live at a perilous height, then these workers would not have died in vain. God teaches us by awful lessons, when we will not use the common sense and reason with which He has endowed us. The situation of this long, narrow city is unique. It tempts men to say that conditions must prevail here which no city of the old world would tolerate. I am inclined to think that there is danger that outward circumstances govern the people, and that the people lose their hold upon the circumstances. In other words, it is well to ask whether the world is possessing us, not we the world. Are we free, or are we becoming a city of slaves?
These are hard questions, but if we set ourselves to solve them, the people who [14/15] perished yesterday will become, even against their will, heroes. By their deaths they will begin to set us free.
Men and women, we are disciples of Jesus Christ. He is a thorough-going Master. He does not tolerate half-way discipleship. He stands before us this day in all the majesty of His freedom to make us free. He alone can make us free. His example shines before us.
He conquered sin.
He owned the world, the world did not own Him.
Before death He was unafraid.
He was and is forever free.
Lord God, grant to us to lose ourselves in Him, till in His strength our weakness is made strong, and we too overcome the world and become free; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.