Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
There weren't a lot of people in our high school who wanted to take a third year of Latin. In fact, there were only three of us. But the schedule for Latin III conflicted with another class that I felt like I needed to take, so I told my instructor, Dr. Donaldson, that I wouldn't be able to take his class. He wasn't disappointed in the least. Instead, he said, "Just register for the class anyway. We can meet separately--just the two of us--and do the class together!" The enthusiasm in his voice was compelling, which is to say that I didn't have the heart to disappoint him.
I showed up in his office at time he and I had scheduled for our first meeting. "Here," he said, handing me a thin book. "What is it?" I asked. "It's Augustine's Confessions," he replied. "This is the text that we are going to use for the class." I stood there, holding the book and giving him a confused look. "Now go away and translate it. We'll meet once a week and see how you've done."
If I had stuck to the Latin text, I wouldn't know much at all about Augustine and his raucous pre-Christian life. But I learned quickly the value of a store-bought English translation to "help" me figure out the tough Latin words. I am an aural and oral learner. I am a communal learner. I am not a sit-by-yourself-and-read-and-think learner. This solo-translation stuff wasn't going to work. My teacher knew it, and he didn't mind. Somehow, I made it through two terms of weekly visits to his office, and, during that time, I learned to respect Augustine. Since then, I've learned even more to respect his mother, Monnica.
How do you get through to a wayward son? Monnica was a Christian for her whole life. She married a pagan, who was fond of the bottle, and, although he never struck or verbally abused her, he was as fond of other women as he was of the drink. Augustine learned from his example. Instead of following in his mother's Christian footsteps, Augustine refused to accept the way of Jesus, instead pursuing the philosophical teachings of fourth-century Rome and the hedonistic lifestyle of pagan imperial society. And what did his mother do? She wept.
There was a time when Monnica tried to arrange a marriage between her son and a young woman of their same aristocratic background, but Augustine refused. He preferred the excitement of an unrespectable affair. No amount of pious pleading from his mother had any effect. Augustine was hell-bent on a hellacious life. And so his mother wept.
Then, when Augustine was 31 years old, something changed. His career as a teacher of rhetoric had led him to fellowship with some of the leading Christian thinkers of his day, whose wisdom he found attractive. Finally, one night, a small voice spoke to him, urging him to "take up and read," which he understood as a command from God to open the bible and read. As the pages opened to Romans 13, Augustine discovered the invitation by St. Paul to the pure life of a transformed Christian, and he accepted it. Instead of marriage or continued affairs, he became celibate. He was baptized and began to write some of the most important works in the Christian tradition. His mother lived to see his conversion, and this time she wept tears of joy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo).
In the gospel lesson appointed for Monnica's remembrance (Luke 7:11-17), we read the story of Jesus encountering a funeral procession outside the city of Nain. On the funeral bier was a man--the only son of a widow. Jesus was moved with compassion, and he approached the procession uninvited, unrequested, and said to the woman, "Do not weep." Then, he reached up and touched the bier. As those who carried the corpse stopped, Jesus said to the dead man, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" And the dead man sat up and began to speak. Fear and wonder seized them all, and Jesus helped them man down from the plank on which he was being carried to his grave and handed him back to his mother. And her tears of sadness and despair were changed to tears of rejoicing.
Mothers and sons. Love, affection, conflict, and heartache. What do you do when your son is lost? How to you convince him to marry the right woman? How do you compel him to do the right thing? How do you persuade him to leave a life of hedonism and accept the upstanding path appointed for him? How do you make him be the son you want him to be? How do you bring your spiritually, emotionally, financially dead son back to life? You don't. You just love him and cry until he finds his own way or doesn't. Monnica reminds us that even the one who brought him into this world cannot bring a dead son back to life. Only God can. Only Jesus can.
Our hope is not found in trying harder. The promise of new life is not given to those who listen to their mothers and decide to commit to a better life. No amount of motherly advice or direction or emotional pleading can coax a lost child into the light. Only God can. Only Jesus can. In Jesus Christ, we learn that resurrection happens and not by our own doing but by God's doing. We cannot save even those we love most of all. All we can do is love them and let God's love beckon them into salvation. No matter how hard we try to free our children from our parental role, we will always be a mom or a dad. We cannot save them because we cannot love them as only God can. Even if we do not articulate them to our children, even if we try our hardest to leave them behind, we will always represent hope and dream and promise and expectation and duty and responsibility to our offspring. We are their parents after all. We don't need another mother. We don't need another father. We need a savior who walks up and brings the dead back to life. We need God to do what we cannot do.