Project Canterbury





A Sermon


Church of the Holy Trinity,

February 13, 1887.







St. Matthew, Chap. vi., v. 16.

Moreover when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites.

THIS sentence strikes my mind with peculiar force. Taken just as it lies in the great Sermon on the Mount, and as Jesus seems to have meant it, the meaning appears to be on the surface. It is the one and only precept that comes from the mouth of the Saviour on this subject. It is an original vade mecum of the great Teacher, with the emphasis of singularity. It is His imperative unit, simple and comprehensive. `Be not as the hypocrites of a sad countenance for they disfigure their faces, appearing unto men to fast. But ye appear not unto men, but unto thy Father, which seeth in secret, who will reward thee openly.'

But, on the other hand, the moment we travel out of the record, and question how we are to regard fasting, as a public provision suited to various classes of the community, in their wants of a cultivation of the religious life; or what is more vexatious, when we study the vast array of facts, precedents, laws, council-decrees, and experimental reformations which meet us; as we look at fasting in history and in life now, I frankly confess that I am confused and almost in despair at the effort to express a sound view of it. There are some classes of Christians which are ready to exercise the severities of the ascetic, by a sort of inverted choice. They love to suffer. They have, what Horace Bushnell said of himself, quaintly, after waiting for death by consumption, "an appetite for dying," [3/4] he had been thinking about it for so many years. There are also classes who hanker for the available capital of sanctified, or perhaps sanctimonious severity. Their piety is essentially yellowed by a spiritual bile. They will in the one extreme exult in maceration of their own bodies, and, on the other extreme, in "souring" on all innocent unconsciousness of enjoyment in other people. There is no doubt about a capitalization of certain pious influences, by religious asceticism. The "veiled Prophet of Khorassan," received boundless reverence from crowds of deluded followers, until his veil was raised--and he appeared as the Pharisees did to Jesus, "as whited sepulchres, full of uncleanness." This treasury exists and flourishes still. They have their reward." Again there are classes of men and women who really need, and can profit by, castigation of their appetites, as a necessary preparation to any right thinking about anything--others, who require some such tonic to give them some courage to walk a straight path, and others again who will be benefited by observances of bodily acts of most any sort, which may awaken them out of a viewless, dreamy piety, who will be happier altogether by a discipline of some sort of physical self-denial in positive actions, that may give them the novel sensation of showing their faith by their works.

Now, we take it for granted that these same classes were represented in the crowds who heard the Sermon on the Mount. At all events we love to read the Sermon, as meant for all time, and reaching over their heads to meet our wants. Therefore, to any one of these persons whom I have specified, I can conceive of various good advices which might be recommended to them. And also, we cannot forget that the common maxim, "what is one man's meat is another man's [4/5] poison" is a good bit of sound old English sense. So then I confess I seem to feel a profounder reverence for the Prophet of Galilee, for the singular brevity of the text. In the three or four sentences which he has made his universal rule, he has selected for especial emphasis, the single precept, "be not as the hypocrites," i.e., the actors, the men, who, whether by intention or by habit, had an unreality on their faces that other men could see, and which they knew was really not their own skin. I always think about this word hypocrite occurring so often in the Gospels, as having many shades of meaning. Some men wore masks, as the Greek word indicates; other men were like ladies who delicately laid on a little tinge of color, to improve their complexion, without very gross delusion, and others again by inward vanity, went about simpering with the air of wondrous beauty, and never imagined just how plain and silly they appeared to others. At all events, I prefer just now to imply this system of variations, in any suggestions about the true notion of a profitable Lenten observance. I must add, too, that something of the same confusion exists not only in my own mind, but, I am sure in the minds of very many others of our citizens, as to the treatment of the subject which is akin to this one--namely, wine-drinking which is referred to in the first lesson of to-day. [Jeremiah, Chapter xxxv.] A glorious man was that wild Bedouin, Jonadab, the son of Rechab, i.e., the Rider. We can meet him now, sweeping over the hot sands of those deserts of Arabia, thin, sinewy, nervous with a boundless energy of will and tempestuous passions, as wild in bounding pulse and as untiring in mettled vigor as the steed on which he rides--and by spare diet and hardy life, as little liable to the temptations [5/6] from wine-drinking. When Jonadab combined with his Prohibition act, the requirements that his sons should build no houses, cultivate no fields, and hold no property, should keep out of cities and towns, and live as natural lives as the horses and the birds of the plains, he showed his practical wisdom. The chapter of the mournful patriot, Jeremiah, that tells of him, is as breezy as a northwest wind in a pine forest. But the Prophet probably felt as I do, that just how to determine on policies of temperance, in common city life was a confused matter in any mind that has to settle its problems, by its possibilities. Jeremiah, we must remember, used the Rechabites, not to advance the cause of temperance and instil a preference for poverty, but as the glaring contrast to the conduct of the peopled Jerusalem in disobeying the Lord. As we now are accustomed to look at his account only on that one side of it, as a commendation of the Rechab tribe, for their temperance in all things, we lose out of sight his main reason for introducing them. They obeyed their human father, but in contrast, Jerusalem rebelled against her covenant Ruler. It is proper, perhaps, to say this much, regretfully, that the theories and the affairs of temperance reformers are now singularly confused. In the meeting at the Academy of Music near us, last week, this confusion was, unhappily manifest to all men. But passing by these troubles about prohibition and the high license of saloons, what I aim at is, after all, a private question of individual duty, in which no man can ever judge for another and in which the collective conscience of the body can not successfully regulate the private judgment. It can only do at the best, what in another place Jesus refers to as, "cleansing the outside of the cup and platter," but it cannot reach the things within. [6/7] And just here seems to be the source of our confusion. We try to strengthen virtues by pressure from the influences that are. outside of us. Christ seems to have relegated all such influences to a lower condition. He formed no organization in his lifetime to influence others by the element that we call `public opinion.' So indifferent was he to this public influence, that his disciples after his departure, seem to have imagined that they were to be "mere witnesses to the fact of the resurrection." Peter suggested the choice of some one to fill the vacant place of Judas, as a witness only "with them to the resurrection." He said nothing of archbishops and patriarchs. Everything else which we now call the Church, was of later development. So that when we get down to a practice of fasting, which certainly has its proper claims, its benefits and proprieties, we come at once on casuistry and confusion, as we try to make collective rules to compel the obedience of the individual conscience. We reach a plain proposition of inspired wisdom only as we commend to each believer "not to be as the hypocrites," but to keep the criterion of piety in this regard, as between the conscience and its God. Strange! is it not, that a custom which had been universal before Christ, and which became almost universal after Christ, which at least has always been trying to be universal, namely, that society, whether as the State or the Church, shall regulate restriction in eating and drinking--that it has the right to do it, or that it can ever succeed, in doing it? strange that this sumptuary prescription is, the one that Jesus did not make nor commend to us. Here He says only "be not as the hypocrites," use this method by your own conscience and your own sense of duty. In another place He only implies that his followers shall fast after the [7/8] bridegroom is taken away from them, and not till then, but, He leaves the modes and degrees of the prescription of this medicine, to be regulated by good sense and private conscience. In this Jesus differs from all religious teachers before and after Him. He is consistent with Himself only. Then again He says "when ye pray" or "when ye do alms." Of course He expects them to do both, and to do both not spasmodically and intermittingly. How are they to do each but in secret, not hiding affectedly their praying or alms-giving, but as authorized and regulated by the conscience. That conscience will be open to good reason, will accept advice, will allow influential rules in a measure, will pay modest respect to social influences, but always as one sitting on the inner throne, judging right. It is not too much to say, that all Churches, when predominant in a country, have acted exactly the other way. The conscience has been twisted toward the objective rule as absolute, and turned away from the Saviour's precept as measurably imperfect. It is alas! not too much to say, that there is a materialism afloat in this Church of ours, that strives to give an objective substance to church regulations as better than the suggestions of a sanctified conscience, so that an abstinence from food, or from some sorts of food or drinks, shall be considered to be piety, irrespective of the sincere personal conviction of the one fasting. If a man should tell us that a wholesome regulation of diet, either as an individual act, or by combined acts, would react on the mind, the affections, yea, and on the very principles clarifying them,--that is one thing, and to a man given to excess, it is a very important thing, but, if he tells us that such a regulation is substantial piety, or thought or virtue, that is quite a different proposition. When [8/9] one turns aside from his usual business, pleasure, over-food, or exciting stimulation, and grows quiet, thoughtful, meditative, he doubtless discovers many wholesome influences which incline him to greater earnestness about duty, love and virtue. He feels nearer the diviner things. He is more of a man, a healthier man. He is thus made more ready to reach after God if haply he may find Him; he can enter into his closet and having shut to the door, and shut out the noise of the outer world, he is ready to pray more clearly; he can give alms, and keep his left hand modestly behind him, and can drive the suggestions of a silly vanity out of his thoughts. In other words, the healthier a man is, the more ready he is to feel the actings of a healthy mind, and, as one looking into a still sheet of water, he can see the stars of God reflected there. You know, of course, that a photographic plate will take impressions of invisible stars, so that you can discover on it what you do not see with your upturned eyes. The sensitive means of religious exercises have such a potency. We abstain, pray, or pity the poor, and we can learn thereby what we do not learn by the sublime contemplations, even of Platonic imagination. We see stars invisible to the mere eye of self.

Now, of course, we all see that the collective body has a moderate authority with us about our prayers. We love this royal unification of our confessions, petitions, praises in church assemblies. It is a good thing and we are the better for it. If a girl here could sing like Patti, on some lone mountain-top, she could not receive certain spiritual suggestions that she might have in the worshipping assembly, where some believers sing with the heart and with little understanding. So we worship freely, and so far conscientiously, [9/10] by liturgic precepts, with grace from co-operation. But if I am in a crisis, personal and peculiar, shall you, or all the world, tell me that I shall not pray then as I please? or that God will hear me any quicker if I begin with "Dearly beloved," and go through to the last amen? There are men I know, who repeat always "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are these," or as we now have it, "the Church this, and the Church that," till the rest of us are made to look and feel like the mere serfs of the men who are long since dead; but none the less, we hold that the object of the Christian religion is to make intelligent Sons of God, and we know that His children are most dear to Him, when they rightly appreciate the "liberty wherewith the Christ has made them free." Between your conscience and your God, no sham is decent; no mere fancy of purpose is more than tolerable as a passing means to help you rise above it, into the love that casts out fear. All religion is a means to that end--of gaining a pure heart to see God--that so you may get at the mind of Christ. So is it radically therefore with fasting--a trifle may help my expression. In the reign of Elizabeth, when this Prayer Book of ours, having been purged of certain materialistic crudities of the older books, was completed, the parliament of England made a rule that fish-eating should be compulsory by law on Fridays. That was their idea of authoritative fasting. The reason given by the law, and inserted into the Homily--that is, into a sermon on fasting which was to be read always in churches, was to promote the fisheries of England. The country depended on the navy, the navy depended on the fishermen as sailors, and a paternal government, as things went then, did well according to its lights. Would we could say as much [10/11] for ecclesiastics, who have sometimes persecuted men with fire and sword in their zeal for abstinence.

Thus government appeals to our reason, and fairly requires respect. Other things being equal it spares our thinking, as it breaks and levels the ground and makes the roads plain and easy before us. The Church also has a title to our regard in her rubrics in the same degree, as hedging us off from personal vagaries and conceits. In many things we are saved any personal experiment by the results of general experience. Fasting per se is almost as universal as eating; it has always been commended. It is now recognized as an instrument in forming a restrained and rounded character. The text implies that much in saying: "When ye fast," just as in saying: "When ye pray." In both cases the things are taken for granted, but the spirit and teaching of that wonderful Prophet of Judea stops exactly there. Few have dared to do the same. Rules for fasting that were good in the hot and dry country of the Rechabites, would be frightfully tyrannical in Labrador, not to say on Long Island. Exact rules of prayer, seven times, three times, or twice a day," or all the time would have been cramping to the free movement of pious souls. It is plain, therefore, that there was in Jesus, the original philosophy of the freedom of the conscience, on which our Church and Country alike depend. I feel that we must never forget this law. The only relief that I can find in the confusion just now existing, about rules of eating, or rules of drinking, is in reading the words of Christ just as they stand. However, we may adjust our laws or: our rubrics, by good sense, the implied command in the text always applies to the individual. God loveth a cheerful giver and Christ most certainly did. A Christian wishes to give alms, by an inward impulse of [11/12] spiritual life. To be pious it must be free. Mix him up in his motives with other considerations, and you defile the giving. A Christian desires to go alone and talk to the great God, who is always open to his conscience, and he shuts the world out behind him. Contravene his solitude, and he fails by intrusion. A Christian or a sinner feels the gross world making him heavy and gross with its pleasures and temptations, its shams and cants, its vanities and delusions, and he longs to get away and chasten his spirit, or as the old Hebrew prophets had it, "to afflict his soul with fasting." No matter what you think of it, he feels that he needs it. Perhaps he is foolish about it, or he goes too far, that is just now, his business, not yours. He desires to try what it can do for him. There has never been a people so afflicted as we easy-going people are with "I can't refrain from indulgences." The trouble with an abstract religion that has only one rule--to go to church once a week--is that it overshoots all practical" temptations. It is too refined. Pearly gates, years hence, do not keep out temptations just here on the spot. He is surrounded by velvet and is flabby and plastic, needs iron in his blood, needs callous in his joints, needs, what often does a fractious boy good--a whipping, and, needs, too, a plain simple fact to fasten on. Let him alone. Let him go alone, and try what he can do for his pampered body and sleepy spirit. I feel intensely in our life a greats vacuum of regulated deeds of practice. I see it in the universal running round the world to help other souls and forgetting our own. Piety gets to be all outside of us, and resembles very often the patriotism of contractors during the late war, which was satisfied with furnishing the materials for others, who did all the fighting, and which was very brave in making money. We have [12/13] run faith without works into the dirt. We are resting now half-way, in faith in all manner of works for other people. We are gradually getting back to sound zeal for the salvation of one soul that nobody else can save, if we do not. In this search, may I commend the text to you, not in order to indulge any cowardice, but as a sound advice of the Master himself. When ye fast don't put on, and draw down the corners of your mouth, or whine and try to weep, but be men. Go at it as a means of putting under your lower nature, and that is what no one can do for you. Keep your truest repentings for the God who seeth in secret, and, if you do the fair thing by Him, rewardeth you, not in secret, but openly, in making your life harmonious and your soul peaceful.

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