The Touch of Christ: A Sermon Commemorative of Thomas Butler Coddington, Preached in Grace Church, New York, Sexagesima Sunday, February 28, 1886.
By William Reed Huntington
New York: E. P. Dutton, 1886.
New York, March 1, 1886.
The Rev. W. R. Huntington, D.D.,
Grace Church Rectory.
The undersigned, members of the Vestry of Grace Church, earnestly request that you give us, for publication, the Sermon preached last Sunday morning, in which you so feelingly spoke of the life and character of our late associate, Thomas B. Coddington.
Chas. G. Landon.
S. C. Williams.
Robt. E. Livingston.
D. W. Bishop.
Wm. C. Schermerhorn.
Theo. K. Gibbs.
Grace Rectory, March 3, 1886.
In saying what I did, on Sunday, about our dear friend, Mr. Coddington, I felt confident that you would not call the picture overdrawn. Your request assures me that in this anticipation 1 was right. I could wish that this tribute to a good man’s memory were a worthier one, but such as it is, I place it at your disposal.
Most truly yours,
William R. Huntington.
To Mr. Charles G. Landon, Mr. Hugh Auchincloss, and others.
Daniel X: 18, 19. Then there came again and touched me, one like the appearance of a man, and he strengthened me, and said, O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee; be strong, yea, be strong. And when he had spoken unto me, I was strengthened.
Through the darkness that encompasses the greater portion of the mysterious book of Daniel, these words shine out lucid and distinct. They bear witness to the fact that nothing so effectually freshens and comforts the heart of man, when borne down by any kind of difficulty or distress, as the consciousness that one is present who has both the ability and the willingness to bring help.
The question suggests itself,—Who was this unexpected visitor, this “one like the appearance of a man,” whose touch and word seem to have been charged full with life? Was he seraph, cherub, angel or arch-angel? Any one of these conjectures is permissible, but it is also open to us to believe, that this vision which so cheered the disheartened prophet as he lay there by the river’s bank in far Assyria, was none other than that Word of God, whose goings forth are from everlasting, but whose more open appearance, on the stage of human history, we associate with the day when Caesar Augustus ruled at Rome, and Herod was king in Judea. In a word, this touch and voice that strengthened Daniel, were the touch and voice of Christ.
I might take you on a search for reasons why we should believe this, into the regions of theology and philosophy. I might dwell upon the absolute necessity grounded in the nature of things, for our having “one like the appearance of man,” to declare and to interpret deity to our poor and limited intelligence, if God is to be known to us at all.
I might ask you to review with me the many instances in the Old Testament, where God is said to talk with men as a man talks with his friend, and from all this it would not be difficult to draw the inference, that since man must always have needed an interpreter if he has ever needed one, it must needs be that He whom Daniel saw in vision was the same One Mediator through whom, and through whom only, the world has access to the Father. Instead of taking either of these two lines, the philosophical or the historical, I fall back for evidence on the actual words attributed to this ambassador whose appearance was “like the appearance of a man.” Who is there before that has ever heard the voice of Christ and does not recognize the quality of it?
“There came and touched” him. That was the first thing. That must always be the first thing with the man to whom Christ speaks. He must be touched, somehow brought into personal contact with the friend who is about to speak; Christ reaches after him and touches him. You say you never have been touched by Christ. Are you quite sure of that? Have you never, after giving way for the one hundredth time to some besetting sin you hate, had the thought come into your heart unbidden, you knew not whence, that there might be such a thing as a life of freedom lived on an entirely different principle from the life of slavery to evil habit? Christ was touching you. Have you never, when enjoyment was at its height, and everything about you in the way of luxury that your heart could wish, in the midst of some gay company, perhaps, or at some brilliant pageant, been struck, if only for a moment, with the conviction, “There must be something better than all this in life! I know that I was made for weightier work than this. These pleasures can never satisfy my heart.” The Master touched you. Have you never, sitting by the bedside of some dying friend, or standing at his grave, felt with a force new and strange to you, the utter emptiness and nothingness of this mortal life, together with some longing for that faith which conquers death and does not fear the grave? Christ, the Life-bringer, was touching you. Do you not, some of you, at this moment, from whatever cause, I care not what, whether from sorrow, disappointment, personal unpopularity, care, anxiety for those you love, loss of property or loss of place, feel within you the desire for a sympathy purer and better, more genuine, more unselfish than any earthly friend possibly can give you? One “like the appearance of a man” is touching you; do not let him go unanswered, he is just the friend you want.
Yes, most of us, in one way or another, have been touched by Christ. The question is, Have we shaken off his hand, or have we turned to Him and listened? If we have listened, we have heard from Him just what Daniel heard there by the great river Tigris, in the third year of Cyrus, King of Persia, and almost thirty centuries ago. “O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee; be strong, yea, be strong.”
Why, my friends, in each one of these short sentences there is matter for a score of sermons. Christ, when He has touched you, tells you first of all that you are loved, “Oh man, greatly beloved,” He says. He tells you this first because it is the first thing you need to know. You have been thinking that God cared nothing for you; that you had no friend; that there was no sympathy for you anywhere, no matter what might come; that your affairs were all governed by some iron fate, some relentless destiny, pitiless, inevitable. But now Christ tells you that it is not so; that it never has been so; that if hard blows have been dealt you, they have been dealt you as the smith deals the blows on the hot iron, to shape you and to mould you and to fit you for some useful end. Your sufferings have had a meaning; there has been a plan and a purpose in your trials. Next Christ says to you, “Fear not; peace be unto you.” This He says to give you confidence for the future. He has just assured you that you are loved; that you have been loved all through the past; and now He tells you that it shall be so all through the future. “Fear not, peace be unto thee. I will stand by thee, I will guide thee. Things look dark, no doubt; clouds are thick; night is closing in; but never mind, I know the way; I have trodden it, the path leads home. Fear not, peace be unto thee.” Last comes the appeal. Christ has promised to do his part; now He urges you to yours. He has touched you; He has told you that you are loved, greatly loved. He has bidden you “fear not;” He has promised you his peace, and now He calls on you for something. “Be strong,” He says, “yea, be strong.”
It is a feeble and sickly Christianity which is content to lie idly on its back and expect God to do everything. Religion of that sort is little better than the absorption of the Hindoo or the fatalism of the Turk. We are called to something better; we are called to the inspiring task of being fellow-workers with our God, we are bidden to be strong. But in what sense strong? Strong in bringing about outward results! Strong to carry forward great philanthropic and religious projects! Strong to build churches, endow hospitals, manage asylums and found schools! Doubtless all these things we ought to do, and shall do, if we love our Master, according as we have the ability and the opportunity. But this is not the strength the Saviour asks. When he says “Be strong,” he is speaking to the poor, the weak, the disabled, as truly as to the competent. Be strong in faith; he means, strong to believe what I have told you, strong to put your trust in me, “strong in the Lord and in the power of his might,” as Paul so magnificently phrases it. These are the kinds of strength he asks,—not so much strength of head or strength of arm, but strength of heart, strength to believe, strength to trust, strength to pray. Does anyone say that this is merely another name for the feeble acquiescence, the passive fatalism which a moment ago was disallowed? I do not think it. The difference between the fatalist’s obedience and the Christian’s is just this, the one is the compelled service of a slave, the other is the willing ministry of a son. The fatalist suffers doggedly because he must, the Christian suffers cheerfully because so God has willed. The fatalist is strong to act because he feels that destiny impels him, the Christian is strong to act because he knows that he can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth him. If the Bible teaches any one truth clearly and distinctly it is this, that all strength which is really strength, like all goodness which is really goodness, comes from God. It is our privilege as men to appropriate this strength and use it as our own, and so long as we recognize and acknowledge the source from which it comes, more and more of it will be given us. If, however, forgetting God and all we owe Him, we claim our strength as naturally, and by inherent right, our own, sooner or later, in this world or in some other world than this, it surely will be taken from us. “Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle,” says the great Giver of all strength, “Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou build thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down.” When, therefore, Christ said to Daniel “Be strong, yea be strong,” he meant, Be strong to follow me, to trust me, to believe me. And that the prophet understood Him so is evident from the closing sentence of the text: “And when he had spoken unto me I was strengthened.” It is not, “I rose and put forth my strength,” but simply “I was strengthened.” So will it be with us if, when Christ touches us and speaks to us, we turn to Him and listen. We shall be strengthened; strengthened as the great Elijah was strengthened when God spoke to him under the juniper tree, and roused him to his work; strengthened as David was strengthened, when he went out with a stone and a sling to meet his enemy who trusted in his greaves of brass; strengthened as Peter was strengthened, when his Lord only turned and looked on him from out the judgment hall; strengthened as Stephen was strengthened, when looking up steadfastly into heaven he saw the blue sky opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God; strengthened as Paul was strengthened, when, in the face of the profligacy and skepticism of a worldly, doubting age, he was enabled to exclaim, “I know whom I have believed.”
We ought to be thankful that, from time to time, in our own day also, illustrations are given us of what the touch of Christ can do for lives to illumine and uplift them.
On Tuesday last, after having worthily lived out his three score years and ten, died Thomas Butler Coddington, a man greatly beloved.
His name deserves honorable mention in the Church of God, for he was upright, courageous, cheerful, charitable, devout. Any man to whom these epithets can, all of them, be truthfully applied, is an uncommon man.
I say he was upright, and I say it in the strong confidence that neither here nor elsewhere will anyone make bold to dispute the declaration.
It is, as we all know, the too common opprobrium of men of business whose names are in any way connected with religion, that while they may be, and often are, sedulously careful not to let their secular engagments interfere with their devotional habits, they are equally watchful against ever permitting their religious scruples to embarrass their commercial success. These are they who furnish young men with the best apology for unbelief. They keep their religion in one compartment of the mind and their affairs in another. They are honestly pious and dishonestly shrewd, sincerely eager to know the truth in things divine, but less anxious than they ought to be to “do the truth” (to use St. John’s suggestive phrase) in the business of the street. I do not say of such men that they are consciously hypocritical, but I do say that they hurt religion more than it is possible to tell. Thomas Coddington was not one of them. Of that unrighteous divorce wherein religion is sundered from morality and dealt with separately, he knew nothing at all. He never used the shield of faith to mask a doubtful transaction, or attempted to smooth with good words spoken the roughness of bad deeds done.
I say of him, moreover, that he was courageous, not easily daunted by difficulty or disheartened at failure.
His friends may have thought him rash sometimes, incautious, too unmindful of possible or probable rocks ahead, but in the main his intrepidity was of the wholesome, justifiable sort. It was not in him to be a laggard or behind hand. He pressed toward the mark, as he saw it faintly glimmering in the distance, and others inspired by the example of his patience pressed on too.
Out of his integrity and his courage sprang, naturally enough, his. cheerfulness, which, to those who knew him only as men know one another in casual intercourse, looked to be his most noteworthy trait. He was supremely cheerful. He carried about with him an atmosphere of good feeling. It was in his eyes, in his smile, in the tones of his voice, yes, in the very movements and gestures of his body. His geniality was contagious. It was impossible to be much in his company without learning to look at life in a more sunshiny light. And all this not because the voyage had been in his case unvexed by tempest, for he had been made acquainted with grief more intimately than the most of us, and it was by no means for lack of saddening memories or of saddening influences that he stoutly refused to be made sad. The roots of his cheerfulness struck down into a deeper soil than mere good nature. His house was builded upon the rock, and when the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat, as beat they did, against that house, he could afford to smile.
I said he was charitable. He was. He was wisely and methodically generous. Liberal of effort as well as liberal in the easier way of giving alms. There was no taint of stinginess about him anywhere. I never shall forget his interesting himself in the well-being of the prisoners of a little county jail in the mountain village where he passed many of his later summers. “Sick and in prison and ye visited me.” The words are familiar enough, but how unready we are to remember them during the heats of an August vacation! This man’s very last act at his place of business was an act of considerate charity; the journey on which he contracted, by exposure, the disease that killed him was an errand of mercy. But those knew Mr. Coddington with only a surface acquaintance who failed to take due account of the deep current of devotional feeling and truly religious conviction that governed the whole movement of his life. He had a loving heart towards God as well as towards man. He believed thoroughly in the divine goodness, and the love thus kindled was of a sort age could not chill nor the many waters of great tribulation quench. Worship meant something very, very real to him, and whether the prayers went up from his own fireside, or here in this Grace Church of ours, which he so fondly loved, they were such prayers as forth from the treasure of an honest and good heart proceed.
The praises of the Christian Church cannot be bought with money. They are not for famous men as such, not for great scholars because great, not for successful soldiers, statesmen, discoverers, because successful. There are shrines in plenty where people may worship reputation, and for the idolatry of success no consecrated ground is needed. The praises of the Christian Church are, or ought to be, reserved for those who by common consent are acknowledged to have been greatly good.
Hence upon the grave of a simple-hearted, unobtrusive man of business, not very widely known, though very deeply loved where known, I lay, in your name, this leaf.
And yet I might have spared myself the effort, for this man’s eulogy had been already written in the Book of Psalms.
“Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle? or who shall rest upon Thy holy hill?
“Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life, and doeth the thing which is right and speaketh the truth from his heart.
“Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle? or who shall rest upon Thy holy hill?
“He that hath used no deceit in his tongue, nor done evil to his neighbor, and hath not slandered his neighbor.
“Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle? or who shall rest upon Thy holy hill?
“He that setteth not by himself, but is lowly in his own eyes, and maketh much of them that fear the Lord.
“Whoso doeth these things shall never fall.”
ACTION OF THE VESTRY OF GRACE CHURCH.
At a meeting of the Vestry of Grace Church, held on the morning of Friday, February 26, the day of Mr. Coddington’s funeral, Messrs. Schermerhorn, Gibbs, and Winthrop were appointed a Committee to prepare a suitable Minute for entry upon the records of the Parish. Their report was unanimously adopted by a rising vote.
In recording upon these minutes the death of Mr. Thomas B. Coddington, it is natural that the first thoughts should be of the loss sustained by this Church, of which he was so long a member and vestryman, and for which he worked so earnestly and faithfully.
But his death affects no less the entire Church to which he belonged, and which he served in varied capacities, with integrity, intelligence and zeal, contributing with equal readiness and liberality his time and his means; holding at the time of his death the dignified and responsible position of Treasurer of the General Convention.
Nor will the sense of loss be confined to the limits of his own Church. The whole community in the midst of which he lived a long and useful life, will miss the upright and earnest man, taking his full part in the world’s work; facing its vicissitudes with firm and quiet courage; bearing more than the common share of its trials and afflictions with Christian resignation; cheerful, serene, free from all bitter and selfish thoughts which could chill his sympathy for others, kindly and benevolent to all.
It may truly be said that he goes to his rest attended by the regrets, the affection and the esteem of all who knew him.
It is, however, as an officer of his own parish church that we, his colleagues, especially desire to commemorate him. Here his chief interests found their centre, here he felt himself as much at home as when under his own roof, and here he will be affectionately recalled as often as account shall be taken of the names of those who have deserved well of the people of Grace Church.