A Sermon Preached
The Feast of Augustine of Hippo – August 31, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
This is the advice that Augustine of Hippo, patron saint of this parish, shares about preaching:
“It is more the piety of prayer than the ready facility of orators that enables (the preacher to be understood); by praying both for himself and for those he is about to address, let him be a pray-er before being a speak-er. At the very moment he steps up to speak, before he even opens up his mouth and says a word, let him lift up his thirsty soul to God, begging that it may belch forth…what (God) has filled it with.”
From his earliest days as a young man, Augustine sought relentlessly after truth. Educated in rhetoric, he knew how to prepare and present a well-reasoned argument, a craft he then taught in Carthage and Rome and Milan. Still seeking truth, Augustine looked to the stars, consulted astrologers who promised their wisdom. When that fell short, he joined the Manicheans, that Persian religion with the narrative of a cosmic battle between the spiritual realm of goodness and light, and the material realm of wickedness and dark. He moved to Milan, became a Neoplatonist, seeking instead after truth in philosophy. He loved a woman he would not marry, fathered a child whom he adored. Eventually, perhaps through the prayers of his mother Monica and the preaching of his bishop, Ambrose, Augustine found his way into the Christian life. Agonizing over truth and its revelation, he walked through a garden, heard a voice say, “take up and read,” opened Paul’s letter calling him to “put on Christ.”
“I have read in Plato and Cicero things that are wise and very beautiful,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions. “But I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”
Something within that quote encompasses something real about who Augustine was, and is, about the namesake of this Body. He sought and sought after truth, wisdom, beauty – in argument, in the night sky, in an explanation that finally proved too uncomplicated, in physicality, in objectivity…and then, at least in the moment he said these words, Augustine revealed a glimpse of something true, found instead in the promise of relationship, of refuge.
“I am the way,” Jesus says in today’s gospel. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
It doesn’t mean Augustine was finished with striving. His conversion, which might mark a happy end for somebody else, sent him still farther in the journey. Instead of concluding his autobiography, the Confessions, with that moment in Book 9, Augustine persisted with four more (lengthy) books, still seeking after explanation.
He would go on to do battle with the Donatists in their arguments over the truth of the sacraments in times of persecutions. He would address the Pelagians in their thought that goodness could be mastered. He would write and write and write about the truth he had found, about the truth he was seeking, craft his own arguments about salvation and grace, about the meaning of original sin and what constitutes a just war.
Augustine’s restlessness would persist throughout the whole of his journey, up to the very time he wrote his last work, City of God. Vandals were moving in to sack the city of which he was bishop. As he died, they would continue their march, in the end burning and destroying everything – except Augustine’s library, his cathedral, which they left untouched.
What does it mean for us, who carry the name of this brilliant and restless and frustrated and deeply faithful man? What does it mean for us to be the Body of Christ here and now, in this time and place?
What I knew of this church before I knew you was the long tradition of seeking after truth. From the time Frank Wilson was pastor of St. A’s, one of the most prolific writers of his generation, through the time of the Rev. Howell, the Rev. Mazza, the Rev. Musgrave, until this day – you are a people who dig in and seek after truth, who hunger for wisdom. A few days ago one of your former wardens told me the story of a discussion you shared about stem-cell research some years ago. People from two very different perspectives shared their understandings on that topic, and then you took the time for people to discuss and question and doubt and share their own thoughts. That sounds to me like wisdom seeking understanding. All of it – the discussion and doubt, the questioning and sharing – seeking after truth is a faithful act, very much in the tradition of our namesake.
When Bishop Lee told the story of his own journey of faith here in our Lounge last fall, there was no voice telling him to read, no words rising off the page as they did for Augustine. Instead, Bishop Lee talked about being a little kid looking out at the night sky, and wondering if this was all that there was…terrified that we were all alone in the universe. And as he told it, his fear of the absence of God became testimony of his own hunger for God.
Whether it was in the stars or in an explanation of the cosmos that didn’t manage to go far enough or in wisdom that was finally incomplete, or ultimately, in the faith that became a kind of pavement upon which Augustine could find his way, I believe the sacred restlessness with which he lived was a holy testimony to what, to whom, he sought: “I am the way,” Jesus says. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “I am.”
In his book Teaching Christianity, when he’s not giving preaching advice, Augustine says this: “Faith gives way to sight…and hope gives way to bliss itself…while charity will grow when these other two fade out. If we love by believing what we cannot see, how much more will we do so when we have begun to see it?”
We may not have Vandals waiting to sack this city, but that might only be thanks to the accidents of our birth that we find ourselves here, instead of Queragosh, or Peshmerga, or Erbil. There is much to call us to a holy restlessness, in the cause of faith, for the sake of the world. As children are being done unspeakable harm, and Christians persecuted for their faith and driven out of their homes, as the people who would help them have their own lives threatened, we could do worse than to seek after a kind wisdom, a measure of hope. We could do worse, on behalf of a people living not so far away from where our patron saint lived and served, than to seek restlessly after the one who promises: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
I love the fact that the glass doors at the back of our church commemorating Augustine’s life include a pathway that traces his journey. Physically, spiritually, intellectually, he was in motion. He was on the way, a follower of The Way. I also love that the phrase we probably associate most closely with our patron is found there as well: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
Perhaps, as the apparent absence of God for our bishop offered a testimony of his striving for God…so might our patron’s acknowledgment of restlessness point toward his striving for rest, for the home that would only be found in the one who created him.
I have read in Plato and Cicero things that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come to me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle, and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
 Teaching Christianity. Augustine of Hippo. Edmund Hill, O.P., trans. New York: Augustinian Heritage Institute, 1996. 218.
 Ibid. 125.