Project Canterbury

The First Sermon in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

By Morgan Dix.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008

[Transcriber's note: The text of this sermon and its attribution is taken from an unidentified, undated news article. From the Journal of the One Hundred and Sixteenth Convention of the Diocese of New York A.D. 1899 we find that the service described below took place on January 8th 1899.]

The congregation hitherto worshipping in the old Asylum Building on Cathedral Heights, quietly migrated on the First Sunday after Epiphany into the crypt chapel of the cathedral. At 10 A.M. Bishop Potter, assisted by the Archdeacon of New York and the three canons, celebrated the Holy Communion, the bishop making a brief address. About one hundred and fifty persons were present. At 4 P.M. Choral Evensong was conducted by the Precentor, Dr. Humphreys, the Rev. Dr. W. R. Huntington and the Rev. Dr. J. W. Brown reading the lessons, and Archdeacon Tiffany pronouncing the benediction. The Rev. Dr. Dix delivered the first sermon in the chapel, which is given below. The chapel was filled by a large congregation and made a marked and most favorable impression on all present.



"Thus saith the Lord of Hosts: Let your hands be strong, ye that hear in these days these words by the mouth of the prophets, which were in the day that the foundation of the house of the Lord of Hosts was laid, that the temple might be built." Zech. viii, 9.

The Feast of St. John the Evangelist, in the year of grace 1892, will long be remembered as a great day in the annals of this city and of the history of our Church in the Western world. Many, or most, of you here present can recall the scene witnessed on this spot, when the corner stone of our cathedral was laid. (December 27th 1892) It is said that the point on the horizon at which the sun appeared on that feast would be struck by a line drawn from the western door and through the choir of the great church already rising above out heads; and so appearing, and pursuing his appointed course from east to west, that sun looked down, on the journey, upon a wondrous scene. They who were so fortunate as to witness what occurred will never forget it: the lines of pilgrims ascending from all directions to this place; the procession of priests moving in long order due, from the old Orphan House, forth into the keen and frosty air; fathers of the Church surrounding our chief pastor and rejoicing with him; the plateau, covered with equipages; the spectators, crowding to view; and then the singularly beautiful service, arranged with faultless taste by a master in liturgical science for the occasion; [ * It is generally understood that the matchless service here referred to was compiled and arranged by the Rev. W. R. Huntington, rector of Grace Church and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Cathedral.] the psalms and prayers; the messages of the Spirit to the seven Churches; the choral song; the full, deep intonation of the Nicene Creed, by that great assemblage; the ceremonies as the mighty corner-stone was fitted to its place; the stirring address by the Bishop of Albany; the messages of congratulation coming across the stormy sea; the final blessing and the peace. Thus were passed the closing hours of the day, from the ninth, till toward the time when it rings to Evensong. And full indeed were the hearts of Christian people, as, under the red light of evening, ere yet the stars had come out, and as the prospect faded in the passing of that brief December day, they took their way back to their homes. Nor be it doubted that there were searchings of heart, and that many a one was thinking or saying, what greater thing than this has come thus far into my life as a child of this branch of the Church? What am I called to do? And how can I help forward the work of God?

Six years have gone by. Much has been done; and, what was beyond expectation, a part of this cathedral is completed and occupied by a congregation, and the work of the coming age has begun in the morning and evening sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and in the commencement of-divine service to be held, here first, and by and by above, to the perpetual praise and glory of Almighty God. Somewhat in the manner of the primitive Church, and, let us hope, in its earnest spirit, we meet beneath the surface of the earth: hereafter, to transfer the instruments and ornaments of a pure worship to some splendid choir; around which will be shining the unobstructed light of day. In the gift of the present lies the promise of the future. Let us be glad, and rejoice, and give honor to the Lord. And let those who were here on that memorable day, in 1892, and are here alive, and well, and safe to-day, give due thanks for two such blessings vouchsafed in the days of their pilgrimage.

I deem it a very great honor to be the preacher to-day. I feel the responsibility of the occasion. Can it be met better than by speaking, plainly, simply, and to the point, of the work which has been undertaken here and must now be carried to completion?

First: This is a work of faith. And by that, be it understood that something confronts us, unlike what commonly attracts the attention and fixes the eye; unlike in this, that no utilitarian end is proposed, by way of earthly gain or secular reward, but solely the glory of Almighty God and charity to the souls of men. We know, and must confess with pain, that in this age materialism is a dominant influence, and the desire of gain an all but universal motive. The first thing asked upon any proposal, is, Will it pay? Will it bring dividends, and a fair rate of interest? Around us immense buildings rise high, and ever higher, into the air; and we know what they represent, and for what purpose they are designed: trade, business, commercial advantage, accommodation for an active, bustling life; the means of wealth, and the hope of material enjoyment. The cathedral has no such relation to the social order. It is, first, for God: it proclaims the belief that the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. There is no cathedral stock to quote in the market: there are no cathedral bonds to sell and buy; no mart draws income from investment here; no man may claim any part or any object as his, more than his brother's, nor own pews for sitting in this great temple, nor vaunt himself, herein above his fellow-men. Were you to give the half, or all, that you possess to the erection of wall or pier, of buttress or window, of chapel or portal, you could derive, in this world, no material advantage from your act; you must wait, for your reward, till you pass hence. Thus, first, the erection of this temple will serve as the strongest protest that could be made against the selfishness, greed and covetousness of the day; yea, moreover, against that spirit which says that religion is losing hold on men, that faith is dying out, that the world is sufficient for human needs; that the God in whom the fathers believed is dead; that nothing is so great as man, nothing worth living for but the promise of this life. It is, first, a work of faith which we have taken in hand, whereof the outcome shall be glory to God, and not to man.

Next, this is a work of patience. How much we need that lesson! What's so characteristic of the nation as restlessness, bustle, the wish to see and enjoy wealth as fast as we can! How little sympathy with the holy writers who inculcate patience as a chief grace and virtue in the kingdom! "Be ye followers of them who through faith and patience inherited the promises. Let patience have her perfect work. Here is the patience of the saints." In words like these from the Bible there is nothing to attract the public mind; they would rather be considered as dampers on enthusiasm and discouragements to enterprise. But, if you knew what is best for man here and hereafter, be thankful, not regretful, that this Church has now undertaken what will require an immense amount of loving patience to complete. Be glad that it is twenty-five years since the plan of building this cathedral was decided on, and that it was nineteen years before the corner-stone was laid: and do not admit the shadow of a regret that few, if any of us--unless a miracle should be wrought by the grace of God acting on some rich man's heart--will live to see the structure finished. Rather be glad of the call to cultivate this grace of patience in carrying on the work to the glory of our Father in heaven. Upon the whole, would it not be better to see the cathedral slowly built by the small contributions of the many, the humble, the poor, than rapidly driven up into the sky, as they drive up those awful structures down in town, by the help of one or two very wealthy men? There is no such thing as hurry in God's work, nor must there be hurry in our work for Him: the more haste, the less speed. The cathedrals of the old world were long in building; some, not yet finished, were begun centuries ago; Salisbury was pushed through very rapidly, that is to say, in thirty years or thereabouts. The longer this house is in building, the more precious in God's sight; for the gifts and offerings flowing hither year by year; for sums bequeathed ere dying eyes close on the world forever; for prayers, hopes, good wishes built into it; for love and fidelity and the heart's desires, made known by the rising of stage after stage into the blue heavens above us. The Church is stronger, calmer, steadier, under discipline which makes her children learn to labor and wait; for a quiet resolve to do what we can as well as we can, and leave results to Him of whom we say, "My times are in Thy hand."

Nor in counselling thus, do we counsel to sluggishness. An obligation rests on every member of the Church to forward the work, if he can. Systematic annual offerings; gifts planned for continuance, year after year, to a work which the giver does not dream of seeing completed; And then bequests, of which many have been made, and some have been realized, and others are no doubt to follow. The work comes home directly to all the parishes in the diocese; why should not each make one offertory each year, for what we recognize as the centre of diocesan work, the heart of missionary operations; the school of Christian learning, the hall of sacred music, the shrine of charity, the helper of feeble parishes, the home of every man, woman and child, the haven of troubled and weary souls, the friendly refuge of all the great multitude, of whatever name, who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, the house of saints, the gate of heaven? That must be a strangely unfortunate parish which recognizes no obligation here; which waits for canonical enactment, assessment, tax, expecting nothing meanwhile from the free-will offering of discerning and well-taught men.

Let me add a few words, not forgetting the presence in which we stand, nor unmindful of the limits which it imposes on speech. Of all who should have our united and cordial support, in this connection, that man is the bishop of the diocese of New York. On the bishop for the time being has been thrown, from the beginning, the chief responsibility; on the bishop for this present time it rests; he can only lay aside the load when God calls him, and his successor takes his place. No man needs our help as much as he. All recognize the fact that the Bishop of New York is practically identified by the public with the cathedral of New York; and justly; for a cathedral takes its name from the Cathedra, the bishop's throne: it is his church: he is aided by dean, canons, chapter, trustees; still, it is his church. Bethink you of the burden which must be carried by any man in high position; bethink you how prone the rest of us are to listen to criticism and to criticise in turn; what addiction there is to mischievous gossip, and unfriendly suggestion; how we are to think our own way the best way, and to hold up hands in disapproval and protest when our peculiar ideas are traversed by somebody's practice in another line. Bearing these things in mind, consider that it is as sure as sure can be, that the bishop, with this work of cathedral-building and cathedral-organization on his hands, will come in for his full share of the polite attentions of troublesome people; of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, fault-finding, censure, from those who look on, and that most of this will come from those who merely look on and do nothing but find fault. Happily, our bishop, thus far, in his wise and admirable administration of this trust, has had little of this kind to contend with, and nothing which it was worth his while to regard; but no one knows what may be done or said hereafter; and he will not take it amiss if his clergy and brethren throughout the Church avail themselves of the occasion to pledge to him their best endeavors, in the way of encouragement, approval, and loyal support, so speeding the work, by help as he may need it on whom the great stress comes.

Speaking for myself, indeed, but to what is known to be the conviction of many others, let me say that there seems to be no reason to doubt that the building and establishing this Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine will strengthen the cause of our Church in this city, this diocese, and this whole land. The corner-stone laid here five years ago was that of a house apt to the presentation and maintenance of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of our Church; it is inconceivable that the distinctive character implied in that description could ever be lost. It will be the mightiest of all witnesses to evangelical truth and apostolic order, embodied in the most stately and impressive form in which the religion inherited from our fathers can be shown to men. As the growing respect, for our Church and her widening influence are the result of observation that she opens a door of refuge for men weary of the doubtfulness, the narrowness, the feebleness of what passes for religion about us; so her strength in the future will consist in remaining true to herself, and continuing to present, in her order, offices and formularies, a positive system wide enough for all the people of the land. The Creed, the sacraments, the ritual of the Church tend to keep minds in balance, consciences healthy, and souls in peace. God has brought Anglican Christianity through one crisis after another, in which the foundations seemed to be going from beneath the feet, and all things speeding toward dissolution; yet no assault of foe, nor blandishment of charmer has succeeded; and after every such alarming episode, this old Church of ours has been found, where she was, firm on the old basis, and secure from depth to height. It will be so hereafter; though new issues, new problems, are here, and no one can foresee what is coming on the face of the earth. Come what will, men will always need the confidence of a certain faith, the comfort of a reasonable, religious and holy hope, and for these they must go where the Word of God is faithfully preached, where the Creed is said and believed as the Catholic Church has received the same, where the Sacraments are duly ministered in all things needful to their validity, and where the pastoral, sacerdotal and royal office is exercised in transmission from the apostles' time. The glorious sight of the cathedral will be the announcement of the place where, as at a fountain head or main storehouse, these needful helps to holy living and holy dying may be had; proclaiming the fulness and freedom of the Gospel of Christ, calling men to come to Him for rest to their souls. "And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's House shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills." Almost dare we to take that glowing, helpful word of prophecy and apply it to the work which has been begun and will be carried on here, on which may Almighty God, Holy, Triune, send ample benediction as generation after generation brings present and comes into these courts. It is a venture, for His glory, and for the salvation of souls, for the widening of the circle of brotherly consideration and a common aim and love; for a larger view of our calling and the way to fulfil it; for the growth of the broad and the death of the narrow, where narrow is but selfishness, and breadth is self-renunciation out of the love of God and in God. Arise, let us go hence; humbler men, if He please, better men; not forgetful, ever mindful of what we see before us and of the greater things that we shall see; in the strength of those words, faith and patience; in a good disposing mind; in gifts and offerings from time to time; in constant prayer for the works of mercy in the Church. "Help me now, O Lord; O Lord, send us now prosperity. Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord: we have wished you good luck, ye that are of the house of the Lord."

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