A PRE-LENTEN SERMON
Preached in Trinity Church, New York
by the Rector,
Rev. William Thomas Manning
on Septuagesima Sunday
February 16, 1919
Published by Request
"Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate."--Epistle for the Day.
That is a great text for this present time. It is the mastery over self that St. Paul is talking about. He is speaking of self-control, command of your own soul, having yourself firmly and strongly in hand.
Two weeks from next Wednesday we begin the season of Lent. The object of Lent is the strengthening of character, the deepening of the inner life, the developing of the higher and nobler self in each of us.
And the Epistle for to-day gives us St. Paul's method for doing this. It is a very simple method. There is nothing morbid, or sentimental, or out of touch, with real life, about it. It is a method for virile, practical normal men and women such as Christians are intended to be, and ought to be. St. Paul says if we want this strengthening of our souls, this fuller personal power, the way to it is self-mastery, control of all our bodily passions, control of our temper, control of our speech, control of our feelings, and our fears, firm, full command of ourselves.
And St. Paul is right. We all know it. The secret of moral strength, the very test of character, is self-control, command over self. And it is this above all things that we need in this time of world wide disquiet and unrest.
1. We need this note of poise and self-command and control in our religious lives. You doubtless know numbers of people who are religiously adrift. They have let go their hold on religion and are running about after fads and notions of all sorts. Anything can claim their attention, and interest, for a time if only it is something new. Their trouble is largely lack of self-control, lack of any clear guiding principle in life. They have never put themselves to the trouble of thinking out the principles of their religion and so it was never of much moment to them. They think they have grown out of religion. The truth is that they never grew into it. They never put themselves under the discipline of religion, and now they are all at sea.
The purpose of Lent is to bring us back to the great foundations of religion, belief in God as the Lord and Ruler of the world and of our own lives, belief in Jesus Christ as a Living Person who keeps us in actual touch with God, belief in the Church as the practical, visible agency which, through its sacraments and its worship, keeps us in touch with Jesus Christ. If we have hold on these three things we shall not be adrift, we shall not be without a guiding principle of life.
2. It is this note of control and self-command which gives us power and effectiveness in all the relations of our lives. A temper ungoverned is a source of moral weakness and loss of power. But a hot temper held well in control gives force and power to a man. Bloodless people without feeling or passion are not likely to accomplish much in this world. But feeling and passion are of service only when they are held in hand, and are guided by principle and judgment. The man who allows his feelings, or his speech, to run away with him will not have great influence among his fellows. It is the man, or woman, who speaks fearlessly but with justice and self-control whose words tell most strongly.
When great moral issues are at stake it is the just and self-controlled man whose righteous wrath will burn like fire, and kindle the flame in others. There was never any anger in this world so terrible for men to stand before as the anger of Jesus Christ, because it was the anger of perfect justice and of perfect self-control. The moral power and effectiveness of all of us is in direct proportion to our mastery of ourselves.
3. We need to keep this in mind just now in our lives as citizens, in our relation to our country.
These are days when we feel strongly and keenly, and it is right that we should do so. These are days when fearless discussion and frank, honest criticism of matters of public policy are not only right but are imperatively demanded. Open discussion and frank criticism of public men and public acts are essential to the life and safety of our country. Suppression of these is contrary to the principles of democracy and would bring death to the Republic. But we must not allow ourselves to become hysterical, or unbalanced, or overwrought. It is the criticism of the controlled and steady headed, and strong hearted which will have weight, and will help.
It is a day when we see extraordinary things done, and often by people whom we should have thought least likely to do them. We must keep our heads all the more steadily. It is lack of self-control, the following of emotion unguided by judgment which accounts chiefly for these unbalanced acts. If people stopped to think not many of them would lend their influence, or their drawing rooms, for the support of movements which aim openly at the overthrow of our Government, and which incidentally seek to abolish the whole idea of the home, and of the marriage relation.
Probably the people who are doing this do not really wish to overthrow Christianity and American Institutions. Some of them doubtless are quite unconscious that they are helping in this direction. The trouble with them is lack of self-control, emotion unguided by principle and judgment, a restless desire for some new interest and excitement. Let us ask ourselves, this Lent, what we are doing as citizens and as Christians.
Am I standing strongly and sensibly for the things upon which life really depends, the old, simple things, the things which build up the life of Church and Country?
Am I in my place a positive and constructive influence, or am I a scattering and destructive influence, or a merely neutral factor.
Why should not each one of us, this Lent, say something like this:--With the help of God, and with the example of Christ before me, I will take firmer control of myself, my life, my work. I will make my life a stronger one, a more useful and effective one for the things that are worth while, for God and Country, for the Church, and for the Community in which I live. This Lent would mean much for America if many, all over our land would use it in this way. Why should we not all do so?