CHRIST CHURCH, HARTFORD,
TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY,
SEPTEMBER 3, 1843;
BEING THE SUNDAY AFTER THE BURIAL OF
MRS. ELIZABETH HART.
BY GEORGE BURGESS, A. M.
Rector of Christ Church.
PRINTED BY REQUEST.
Mrs. ELIZABETH HART, widow of RICHARD W. HART, Esq., of Saybrook, was born at Newport, R. I., and died at Hartford, on the 31st of August, 1843, having almost completed her seventy-first year; rich in good works, in the reverence of all and the gratitude of many, and in the peaceful hope of a long-tried believer.
PSALM LXXI. VERSES 17, 18.
"O GOD, THOU HAST TAUGHT ME FROM MY YOUTH; AND HITHERTO HAVE I DECLARED THY WONDROUS WORKS. NOW ALSO, WHEN I AM OLD AND GRAY-HEADED, O GOD, FORSAKE ME NOT, UNTIL I HAVE SHOWED THY STRENGTH UNTO THIS GENERATION, AND THY POWER TO EVERY ONE THAT IS TO COME."
Beautiful was the whole life of David, the holy Psalmist. It was a youth of noble promise, a manhood of generous valor, and an old age of venerable wisdom; and throughout it was holiness unto the Lord. Behold him in the text, remembering all the way by which his God had led him; setting up as it were his "stone of aid," and saying, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped me;" and now, in the consciousness of present infirmities, trusting the same strong arm above, and asking still only grace to declare that merciful power to the coming generation. How sweet are the words of the wise and the aged, thus recording the goodness of the Lord to them that trust in His name, and thus calling on those who shall [5/6] succeed them to follow their blessed experience! A few only leave such a record, like the Psalmist, in history, or public precept, or sacred song. The spiritual counsels of a patriarchal age, as they are conveyed in words, must commonly be confined within the small circle of a single family. Yet, every righteous life, prolonged to hoary hairs, and every death of those who bear that crown of glory, is the most moving declaration of these wondrous works of God. We would, therefore, contemplate to day the thanksgiving and prayer of the man after God's own heart; the aged David. Let them be to us, O gracious Lord, inspiring words of comfort and of strength, through the mighty power of thy Spirit!
First, the eye of the Psalmist embraces the piety and happiness of his life, from his youth upward. From his youth, he has been taught of God; and hitherto has he declared, and had unceasing cause to declare, His wondrous works. Blessed are they to whom the past is fruitful in holy joy; thrice blessed they whose remembrances of the teaching of God go back, even to the quiet scenes of childhood! Among the green pastures, and by the still waters of Bethlehem had David, a ruddy stripling, learned the praises of the good Shepherd. Afterwards, in the progress of his eventful career, carne war and persecution, temptation and guilt, and chastisement and punishment. But all, as now he could [6/7] survey them, contributed to that great lesson which God had taught him from his youth, and confirmed by every day as it succeeded. The whole experience of a pious man is thus an instruction in the knowledge of divine wisdom, holiness and mercy. And if to know God, which with us is also to know Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, be eternal life, and therefore be precious beyond all else which a mortal can attain or desire, then he who can gratefully say that from his youth he has been taught of God, he is rich beyond all other treasures, and happy beyond all other delights. So, ever, the aged servants of the Lord recall his goodness; so, blessing Him for all His mercies, still bless Him first of all, for the teachings of His grace, received through all the events of His Providence.
But the aged may sometimes name as youth a period which, to the young, seems even maturity. Many, whose early days may have passed in folly or indifference, have turned in their riper years to the service of God their Saviour, and have afterwards lived long in the ways of righteousness. When the memory, at threescore years and ten, can thus see, like a tract covered with bright verdure, the period from even middle life onward, even middle life may be remembered as youth; for the blessing of being taught of God may still have been tasted through a whole generation. It may encourage those who [7/8] now, in their maturity, become the soldiers of Christ, and who may live to the old age of the righteous. But let the young reflect that the aged are always very few, and that they have no promise of attaining even maturity. The happiness, which the Psalmist recalled and felt, if they seek it not from their earliest youth, may thus be lost forever.
We next observe, that the Psalmist sees, in all his piety and his happiness, only the gift of God, the gift of grace; and that all his exultation is but thankfulness. The experience of the aged, who, by patient continuance in well-doing, have sought for glory, honor and immortality, is uniform in this, that every thought of boasting is at every step excluded. If those who are young in knowledge are ever tempted to a vain confidence in themselves, they cannot, who through long years have been taught of God to know themselves. Their life, my brethren, however pure it may have been to our eyes, has yet been a succession of disappointments as well as of efforts, a history of frailty as well as of excellence. None of their enemies, if enemies they have had, has perceived this as well as they; and with the humblest consciousness of weakness and of guilt, they confess that whatever of good they have thought, or felt, or done, has been taught them by a Divine Teacher.
The fruit of such instruction has been, that they [8/9] have hitherto declared the wondrous works of the Lord, and glorified him with their lips and in their lives. It is the distinctive mark of a Christian, separating him from all men beside, that he ever endeavors to do the will of God, as it is revealed in our Lord Jesus; and thus God is glorified, and his wondrous works are best declared. Charity is dispensed with a liberal hand; meekness and gentleness are studied and cherished; the lips are closed to evil, and the tongue speaks no guile; because such is the rule of the heavenly word, such the character of which Christ was the perfect example. But, if graces and virtues like these could be learned without Christ, if they could be exercised without glory to God, because, without regard to His will, yet, zeal for the salvation of men, devotion to the Church of the Redeemer, love of His servants, deep holy reverence for the name, and day, and house, and worship of the Lord, these would have neither meaning nor existence, except as they should proceed from God and be directed to his glory. My brethren, it is on such a life that old age casts back its eye with humble gratitude. No deeds or acquirements, which began in the desire, and ended in the attainment of human applause, are thus remembered; far less the efforts and gains of a more sordid selfishness.
These thankful reflections are followed by the [9/10] prayer, “now, also, when I am old and gray-headed, O God, forsake me not." Is the sentiment of dependence weakened by long experience? Have the triumphs of past years created a confidence of safety without perseverance, or of power to persevere without unceasing grace from above, or of grace without unceasing supplication? "Forsake me not," still cries the aged Christian, "Forsake me not now, when I am old and gray-headed." You will discover, I believe, so far as you can be informed of the private customs of such, and so far as you may remark their public deportment, that prayer has become more frequent, more protracted, and more fervent. The ordinances of divine grace are, if possible, more highly esteemed, and observed with a more careful reverence. The misery of being forsaken of God is more deeply appreciated than ever. As the cares of the world become less engaging, and the enticements of the world pass all away, communion with the Most High becomes ever a dearer and more chosen pleasure. In that communion, the constant petition of the heart that hungers and thirsts more and more after righteousness, is ever, "forsake me not, now that I am old and gray-headed."
Not till life is ended! Not till the duty of a Christian old age is done! Not till they have showed the strength of God unto their generation, and [10/11] his power to every one that is to come! If the past has been spent in declaring the wondrous works of God, by a life of trust, obedience and praise, such also. be the future! Let the active piety of youth, be succeeded by the sober piety of hoary years. If little can now be done by vigorous limbs and healthful energy, let wise counsels, and patient sufferings, and solitary prayers, be given to the coming generation. Let the lustre of a holy example be seen, strengthened as it is by all the reverence which belongs to old age; old age, the image of the Ancient of Days!
How pure, how precious, how blessed, in the sight of God and man, is that gray-headed piety which thus speaks to another generation! How true a copy of the joy of angels, when with the power to bestow wide blessings is joined the heart to bestow! Age has its labor and sorrow; but then, age is more beautiful than all youthful loveliness. Long weakness is painful to our nature, painful to endure, painful even to perceive; but then, weakness, sustained by patience and faith, has all the charm of spiritual health and vigor. Wealth is a chief snare of the deceitful heart of man; but then, wealth, thus employed in faithful stewardship, lays up a good foundation against the time to come, a treasure in the heavens, incorruptible, undefiled and that fadeth not away. Surrounded. by the blessings of those whom [11/12] its bounty has blessed; endeared to all who could come within its warm sphere, by the kindness and gentleness of years of happy intercourse; honored by those who love the cause of God and of his Church; and sanctified in the sight even of those who, disregarding all other loveliness, must still own, that the religion, which bears such fruit, is divine; so have we seen the piety of old age go on to its consummation; as the calm, clear, mild sun descends to the bright chambers of the West.
You will have anticipated the allusion to such examples. At our last communion, many of you beheld one aged form, scarce able to approach the holy table, and our thanksgivings were asked and offered for that gleam of recovery. [MRS. HANNAH DRAPER, an aged and most estimable lady of the Parish of Christ Church, who died August 11, 1843.] On the next Sunday, the same venerable form was given, by a dutiful and grateful family, to the dust, in sure and certain hope. The passage before us, they know, would be the fit utterance of that which was her constant aspiration. To them was left the testimony of a long and happy experience, bearing witness to those wondrous works which tell the merciful goodness of the Lord upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children.
Again, as the month closed, closed also another [12/13] old age of righteousness. When death is sudden and therefore striking, a feeling thrills through the community, which prepares the minds of men for the most solemn messages of their God. When it is the death of an exemplary Christian, and our hearts and hopes can rest upon it with tranquil satisfaction, in the midst of sympathy or sorrow, then the comforts of the Gospel, and the prospect of life and immortality are offered by the occasion itself, and words only speak what has been felt by all already. Thus from this place we sometimes turn our thoughts to the lately departed; and when God so addresses us by his Providence, the ministers of his word may well enforce their appeal by that higher language. But when the grave closes on all that was mortal of eminent holiness, of piety exalted in station, and rich in good works, and venerated and beloved far beyond the extent of common acquaintance, it would be impossible, it would be disregarding all our best emotions, and neglecting the grace of the Most High, in its clearest revelation, then to be silent.
One, who, from the deep retirement to which the visitations of Providence confined her, yet so disclosed herself by her bounties that many rose up and called her blessed, has passed to her reward. Only twice had she been seen in these courts, only once at this altar; such was the will of Him who chastens whom He loves. Yet should we ask who, amongst [13/14] all this congregation, was best and most widely known by acts of Christian beneficence and love, I shall shame none by saying, that of all who are here from Sunday to Sunday, none bears a name more brightly encircled with such holy honor. It was not a burden, it was not a mere duty; it was an exceeding delight, to discharge thus her stewardship. Her earthly reward is in the remembrance of the poor whom she had relieved; of the sick, whose painful beds had been softened by her kindness; of the ministers of Christ, whom in the name of their Master she had received and cherished; and of that Zion whose stones were dear to her, and whose cause never lacked her generous, ready and anticipating aid.
But all, that thus could be beheld, was still but an outward token of that which was known to God, and to her own familiar circle. The secret habits, the daily intercourse, the patient endurance, the unrestrained expression of feeling, were all those of a most meek, and gentle, and reverential piety; of a soul that loved justice, and did mercy, and walked humbly with its God. It was such a life, too, as the Church would form, would we but frame ourselves by the spirit of the Church, and of its holy ordinances. It was not only pure and undefiled religion, but that religion so lowly, so diligent, so stedfast, so blended with all that is graceful and lovely in [14/15] character, that we seemed to see united the saintly excellence of apostolic days, with whatsoever in our own is best and most beautiful. Reviewing innumerable mercies with daily thanksgiving; prizing, above all, the lessons taught by God, by His word, and by His grace; disclaiming, even in the last hours, disclaiming, again and again, all but the hope in Christ of an unprofitable servant; her age was passed in doing good to those who were to come after. It was a constant utterance, in act, of the prayer of the Psalmist, O God, thou past taught me from my youth, and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works: now, also, when I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not, until I have showed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is yet to come." The petition was granted; and in God's own good time, threescore and ten more than fulfilled, she lay down upon her bed, bore with her accustomed patience a few days of increasing weakness, was strengthened by frequent prayer, and breathed out her soul in perfect peace.
"Night dews fall not more gently to the ground,
Nor weary, worn-out winds expire so soft."
Some, even of our sinful race, are heirs of glory through Jesus Christ, and many of you feel that one such, if such you ever beheld, has just departed from amongst us.My Christian brethren, and especially you who are aged, or opulent, or afflicted, let us now rear the best monument of departed excellence. It is the solemn supplication, whenever we remember the blessed dead, that, each in his station, we may be followers of them who, through faith and patience, inherit the promises.