Project Canterbury

Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.

with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.

(Preached at Racine College Commencement, June, 1878. Baccalaureate Sermon.)

"Therefore every scribe, which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old."—ST. MATTHEW xiii., 52.

THE great multitude of men hurry to and fro, and are absorbed in the cares and duties of life, and more in the former than in the latter. They are carried along by the current. They are driven to and fro by movements they can not understand. They are affected by thoughts and ideas they never analyze. Not like "dumb, driven cattle," perhaps, though sometimes this is no inapt comparison, but rather, in the language of Holy Scripture, they wander "like sheep having no shepherd." The men on the watch-towers, whether of thought or study or calm repose, or much more on those heights where prayer and meditation and love and faith sanctify thought and study and leisure, see from afar the dust of the chariot-wheels and the gleam of weapons, and hear in the silence of the night the tramp of the advancing host.

Have you ever thought that it is ours to live in a time of profound change? At almost any time people see changes enough—I mean thoughtful, middle-aged people. There never has been anything very stable in this world, but I do not mean a time of ordinary change, but one of those periods when the old order passes, and gives way to the new. Let me mention some features of this change. They will be like the touches a painter gives to a picture, each by itself imperfect, but to be taken as a whole.

For example, hurriedly, the other day, a New Zealand Bishop, on his way to the Lambeth Conference, passed through this country, tarrying awhile to assist in the consecration of an American Bishop. The solitary New Zealand Bishop was as nothing, to the hosts of Chinese and Japanese and other Orientals whose advance-guard is upon us. The Goths and the Huns and the Visigoths thundered one day at the gates of the Roman Empire; these calm Orientals do not thunder, but they may herald a conquest less bloody, but equally real.

But what is this to the terrible nearness, so to speak, which telegraphs, and railroads, and steamships, and the march of geographical discovery are producing? One hears the groans of famine-stricken people in northern China, and of starving Hindoos. An earthquake in South America shakes our very casements. We listen to the debates in the Berlin Congress; we know what the Nihilists plot in Russia; we are shocked at massacres in Bulgaria, and catch the sound of tumults in the streets of Constantinople. We see the steamer in the Arctic ice, and hope soon to smell the perfume of the possible flowers which bloom beyond the open sea in the land of the Northern Pole. We know the mighty lakes of Central Africa, and watch the intrepid traveler following the Congo as it dashes down cataracts and through impassable forests to the Atlantic waves. Turkish bonds and Egyptian finances, the Paris Exposition and the Russian Fair, all things that are planned or happen—the good and the evil, the victories of war and of peace, the murders and the suicides, the shocking crimes of which it is a shame even to speak, the words and actions of princes and peasants, martyrs and criminals, dying Popes and half-assassinated Emperors, the strawberries which disagree with the Russian Chancellor, the lost jewels of the English Countess, the stigmata of the Belgian enthusiast—all these, little and great, bad and good, are brought near to us. We sit beneath the wide-spreading branches of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. "Eat," still the tempter cries, "and ye shall be as gods." And as we press to our lips the luscious fruit, lo! too often the apples of Sodom and the grapes of Gomorrah!

Consider again the new discoveries of which the world is full—the new studies and duties and occupations which these involve. It does not seem too much to say that the results of these things may be as great as the effects of the invention of printing: and that revolutionized the world. Is there not, too, a conviction, which is in itself an element of change, that these are but the beginning of greater discoveries? The question of the spontaneous generation of life has just been decided in the negative by eminent scientists. What if further research should prove this conclusion erroneous? What if the very mystery of life itself, which seems to be the deepest secret of Almighty God save the mysteries of His own Being and incomprehensible nature, should yet be revealed? What if there should be a conquest over death, which should mock, as in a masquerade, the resurrection of the flesh and the life of the world to come? I do not affirm that these things are possible—I do not believe they are; yet he who, in the presence of the history of the last three hundred years, should venture to say the opposite of this, that they are impossible, might be rash. At any rate, the deepest element of change I know of is the uncertainty which scientific discovery throws over many things which seemed as immutable as the everlasting hills.

Not that I mean to be understood as thinking it possible that any discoveries can touch the "Word of God, the creeds that never die, the foundation of God which standeth sure, the Church against which the gates of hell shall never prevail. This can not be, for Truth is ever one, and can not contradict itself. But meanwhile "the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing"; and Goliath leads the Philistines, and defies the armies of the living God!

There is a more widespread uncertainty, doubt, and unbelief than people imagine". Even women, who of old were last at the cross and first at the sepulchre, lisp forth the latest new-fashioned skepticism, and, with hard unloveliness, seek to overthrow all that has made motherhood glorious, and the solitary unmarried life a lasting benediction. Boys—yes, with the cross of Baptism on their brow, youth just beginning to reap the harvest which the faith and tears and penitence and love and self-denial of their forefathers have won, though scarce able intellectually to state a proposition, or draw a legitimate conclusion, echo, often incorrectly, the shallow utterances of newspapers and reviews. Loud-mouthed is the orator, whose feeble rhetoric and shallow jests, in the presence of the awful problems of life, sin, sorrow, and death, satisfy the unthinking populace. With a soft unreality the poet sings:

"No lonely life had passed too slow,
When I could hourly see
That wan, nail'd Form, with head drooped low,
Upon the bitter tree;
Could see the Mother with the Child,

"Whose tender, winning arts Have to His little arms beguiled
So many wounded hearts.

"While we believed on earth He went,
And open stood His grave,
Men called from chamber, church, and tent,
And Christ was by to save. Now He is dead!
Far hence He lies,
In the lone Syrian town; And on His grave, with shining eyes,
The Syrian stars look down."

The clever essayist, the thoughtful reviewer, the careful scientific student, the fervid French novelist, the German professor, and the practical materialist, everywhere—now with every felicity of language, now with clearly reasoned statement, now with all the beauty of imagination, and now with the old cry, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die"—deny the Lord who bought them. And then there is a story of sin and shame, almost like that which from the old Roman world went up to heaven, when first the Christian faith was manifested to a weary world.

"On that hard Pagan world, disgust
And secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell.

"In his cool hall, with haggard eyes,
The Roman noble lay; He drove abroad,
in furious guise, Along the Appian way.

"He made a feast, drank fierce and fast,
And crowned his hair with flowers;
No easier nor no quicker passed
The impracticable hours."

This picture is scarcely true of us as yet, but things tend that way. There is a theory afloat, that true morality and righteousness can flourish apart from Christianity. Examples are every day presented—some of them men famous and illustrious, who have lost faith, and yet been instances of noble and pure lives. It is not considered how deeply such lives have been affected by the heritage of Christianity, by some of its teachings not yet renounced; by an atmosphere that has surrounded them from infancy; by the tendencies of the generations that preceded them; possibly by the grace of Baptism not wholly lost; by the upholding power of Christian civilization. This would be amply sufficient to account for such lives, without accepting the conclusion that we draw from them; but there is another thought.

Thoughtful men must judge of tendencies, not from individual cases, but from their results upon masses of men and the character of a period. When a state is decaying, and patriotism passing away, still there will be examples of heroism and unselfishness. Morality, like a great state, dies hard. Under unfavorable circumstances, when one would least expect, it may shine forth, fair as of old, in all the beauty of its immortal youth. But the question is, Is the tendency of the age upward or downward? Are we growing better or worse? Are we, on the whole, purer, more unselfish, more free from evil motives, possessed of that element of strength which high morality always gives, because it is based on self-denial, self-command, and continence? I will not ask merely whether one hears of more evil than of old, for that may be only a result of what is miscalled the liberty of the press—a liberty whereby our sons and daughters can read of every foul deed with which this earth is polluted; but I will ask, whether there are not sins and offenses, not only practiced, but beginning to find eager and subtle defenders, which strike a blow at honor, at manliness, at all that is best and noblest, at family life, at virtue, at strength, at national power? Can you not trace corruption in art, in poetry, in the home, in government, in religion?

I know there is a reaction against all this. There is another side to it. There are more fervent prayers, nobler instances of self-devotion, a more adoring faith, perhaps, than ever before. God grant that we may share in them. But even here I see an element of change. The religious convictions of the American people are steadily and rapidly changing. Two great forces contend for the mastery: one which moves toward the exaltation of the individual reason, which cares little for authority, which disregards the sacramental, the invisible, the supernatural; another which listens earnestly to every voice which claims or possesses divine authority, which looks back to primitive Christianity, and which reverently bows before the awful powers of the world to come. It may be hard, in any religious body, to say which, of these forces is the stronger; it may be difficult to say which is the motive power in any religious movement; but the two forces are steadily working. Calvinism, which was the religious system of the majority of Americans four and twenty years ago, is, theoretically and practically, dying out of the convictions and lives of people. Such movements as the so-called Evangelistic one, which has produced so marked a result, are as far removed from the stern system of the Swiss reformer as they possibly are from primitive Christianity.

There is another element of change, which, in this country, is becoming more and more evident. What about the government? Do not the events which happen prove that there are unsuspected weaknesses in the system which has been adopted? Are they not of a nature which apparently admits of no correction, so long as universal suffrage remains? Is there not a steadily growing political corruption? Is it not one of the most appalling signs of the times, that all questions, no matter what their intrinsic importance, are discussed, not upon their merits, but simply as they affect the political prosperity of this or that party? Nay, are we not descending even to a lower depth than this? Are they not considered as they affect the fortunes of this or that individual? Are there not those who, in despair of the future, stand aloof from all questions that belong to the civil sphere?

We are witnessing, moreover, the first beginnings of a socialistic movement which may swell to vast proportions. It is not simply an agrarian movement; it is based upon a theory which involves the destruction of property, society, family life, religion. It may not be so; one feels at any rate like praying with Hezekiah, "Only let there be peace in our days "; but it seems as if deep-seated political revolutions—I do not say or know in what direction—were impending. It is a marked feature of the communistic movement that it is a ghastly counterfeit of Christianity. You know who said, "Woe unto you that are rich "; "Blessed be ye poor"; "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me "; "If any man hate not his father and mother, yea, and his own life also, he can not be My disciple." You know it is said of the early Christians, "that they had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need." There is a Christian communism based on love, and reverence, and fear, and faith in God. It is the only thing which can reconcile the conflicting claims of capital and labor. The communism of to-day is, as I have said, a ghastly counterfeit of it, and perchance may be one element in that power of Antichrist, which like a dark shadow hangs over the latter days, and the end of the world.

Now I have sketched, at greater length perhaps than I ought, though with hardly sufficient fullness to do the subject justice, a few of the elements of change that one can readily appreciate. There are others, no doubt, of which these are possibly only the symptoms.

The end of this present aeon is yet to be. The trumpet is to sound, the dead are to be raised incorruptible, the new Jerusalem is to descend. Between good and evil, truth and falsehood, sin and righteousness, Christ and Antichrist, the awful combat is yet to come. Somehow, somewhere, the hosts are marshaling. In secret chambers the weapons are being forged. Knights watch their arms in silent shrines. The standard-bearers take down the flags which have waved in many a fray and led to victory. Listen! listen! do you not hear the cry, "To arms! To arms!"

I ask—to-day, when for the last time I preach to some —I ask what treasures new and old the Householder may bring forth. What ought to be the attitude of a Christian man toward the world and life in this day in which we live—I do not mean in any special profession, but in all? When I ask the question, I am perplexed what to answer, because of the abundance of replies which might be given. I pass over some of the most obvious and take up certain points which seem to me to be valuable, because they imply and presuppose, and are the necessary result of, others which one might, at first thought, expect.

First, personal purity—that well-ordered religious government of all this wonderful, complex system, so hard to comprehend, so difficult to control, so out of order and in confusion, which makes up the inner being of a man, and affects the outer world, not simply by his actions, but by all that he is, by the atmosphere that surrounds him, by his very gait and gesture and attire. I mean that government where conscience rules as a queen and is sovereign over all, and not, as one has wittily said, as a constitutional monarch whose duty it is to register the decrees of the passions, and to be deposed if she refuses to do so.

O the hidden struggles, the many failures, the wondrous victories, the untold blessing, the marvelous power, the transformed nature of the man who, from youth up, has learned the majesty of self-control! I do not mean the hard rule of a stoical will, or the stern grandeur of enforced and absolute abstinence, but that sweet and temperate moderation, which undervalues no gift of God and no power which He has given, which finds the traces of that image in which man was created in all that he is, and. blends all into harmony by union with the Crucified, through the presence of the Eternal Spirit. Before such, an one, as at the presence of the Lord, in whose strength alone he is strong, evil goes backward and falls to the ground. But I must add to this, if need be, and in some cases—and with a deeper need and in more cases than many suppose—a life, if not ascetic, at least profoundly self-denying. It is a time of manifold and increasing self-indulgence. The very love of the beautiful, which needs cultivation still, and which is like a new sense when once it is attained, needs to be carefully watched, lest it be perverted into the corruption of Greek heathenism.

To realize beauty, to love art, to appreciate nature, to be sensitive to color and form and sound, to vibrate, like the strings of an Aeolian. harp, to all the hidden harmonies of the summer air, and yet to surrender all these, or to use them sparingly for the sake of strength and power and higher good, and the healing of glaring sights, or deformity, or discord; to accumulate the forces which might honestly be expended on lawful objects of desire, and pour them forth in a flood of beneficence on the homeless and the weary, the plague-stricken and the lost; to shun neither the cold lap of earth, nor the rude embrace of the elements; to be superior to pain and hardship, and hunger and weariness—this is to be like Him who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor; who, though Lord of heaven and earth, yet for us men and for our salvation could say, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head."

The second grace which I would speak of is loyalty. The hidden curse of most men is selfishness, with all its morbid brood of self-consciousness, conceit, vanity, littleness, and feebleness. It is the explanation of too many failures in men of whom one expects better things. It is the hidden secret which explains, alas! only too many inconsistencies. A man maintains, and then abandons, a principle. He is first on one side, and then on the other. We call him vacillating, or inconsistent, or unprincipled; but, all the while, he has been firm and true and loyal to the real principle which actuated him, because that principle was self and self-interest. O my friend! be loyal to something, not yourself; to an abstraction, an idea, a notion, if you can do no better; to your father and mother, to your friend or your teacher, to the woman you love, to a priest or a statesman, to the man who embodies some great cause, and suffers for it! Forget yourself and your own interest, your faults, your sins, your virtues, your wants, your hopes, your fears, and find in this forgetfulness of self a deeper knowledge, a purer aim, a more enduring reward.

Above all, be loyal to your native land, the home of your forefathers, the inheritance of your children. There are great principles, not yet wholly lost, worth living for and dying for—true freedom, representative government, education not secularized, morality, patriotism, the poor uplifted, the rich made liberal, a Christian State, "with the Eternal God for our refuge, and underneath the Everlasting Arms." Not yet is the vision of a land of plenty and of peace, of equal rights and honest labor, of knowledge and bravery and the love of truth, faded away. The clouds will vanish, the sun shine forth, and men, whose conscience, not whose interests, whose patriotism, not whose politics, whose knowledge, not whose ignorance, whose faith, not whose coarse unbelief, is their guiding principle, will be nerved to pray and labor for their native land.

But the greatest and the best gift of all is a deeper faith. I do not say faith, for that is presupposed, but a deeper, fuller, more adoring faith. What if one should study nature, not simply for nature's sake and the search for scientific truth, not merely to answer objections brought from the self-same study against the revealed Word of God—though this is well—but with an enlightened eye, and an enkindled heart, to trace the wisdom, goodness, and power which are surely written there of Father, Word, and Spirit, One in Three and Three in One, who created nature and upholds it! A faith no greater than a grain of mustard-seed, our Lord declared, could remove mountains; but still the mountains of error and of sin uplift their heads to heaven, innumerable as of old.

Nay, there was a faith in other days which "subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, out of weakness was made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens." It was a faith, my brethren, that, at least, involved the full belief in the Incarnate Son of God, perfect God and perfect man, the Second Person of the Adorable Trinity from all eternity, the Son of Mary according to the flesh. Our Lord Himself said, "When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?" Is there not, even now, a lessening faith in Him? It is not enough to regard Him as a teacher, an example, a merciful, loving friend. It is not enough, even, to believe in Him as a Saviour. It must be as the Incarnate Saviour.

The awful Word of God made man mean something more than a shallow theology has reduced it to. He is still the Incarnate God. He has sent down His Holy Spirit to make Himself an ever-present Incarnate Saviour. He is in the midst of the adoring angels. He is at the right hand of God. The cherubim bow before Him, the Seraphim veil their faces; but He speaks by His priests, He teaches in His Word, He absolves as the Son of man, He pleads in his poor, He is hidden behind the sacramental veils, He stands beside the dying bed, He leads through the valley of the shadow of death! And, because of all this, because He is in it, because He is its head, its spouse, and it is His Body and His Bride, a deeper faith in Him involves a deeper faith and love for His Holy Catholic church.

What can solve the difficulties of life, the strange changes of modern days, the awful responsibilities that are upon us, the new lands that are opened, the problems of society, the untried powers which no doubt are to be given, but the truth ever old and ever new, the faith in Jesus and the work of the Church, which is the fullness of Him that filleth all in all"?

The years pass, ay, and the centuries; one comes, and another goes. We feel as if all depended on individuals, as in a way it does; but the individual passes, and the work goes on. Ay, in the midst of change and of sorrow, in the midst of problems and distresses, of doubt and difficulties, the stately city of the King of as it did of old. Its twelve foundations are unshaken evermore. The river of the water of life flows on, as deep and broad as ever. The tree of life still bears its twelve manner of fruits, which, are, for evermore, for the healing of the nations. Still is the Lamb the light of that city, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor unto it.

Ah! my brethren, my children, and my friends, let us seek for pure hearts, for self-denying lives, for unselfish aims, for deeper faith; let us find all these, not simply in solitary isolation, but built upon the foundation of prophets and apostles, in that city "whose builder and maker is God." Then, as we wander, Christ will be our Way; as doubts and difficulties beset, Christ will be to us the Eternal Truth; as partings, which are the image of death, nay, as death itself approaches, Christ will be our Life, our Light, our All in All!

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