HOMILY – ST AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO (Feast Day August 28)
(and in grateful memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King)
Collect: Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
On August 28, in the year 430, St Augustine died. He was a brilliant thinker and free spirit who used and developed his great mind to explore the big questions of life from an intellectual and philosophical point of view. But finally it was the reading of a passage of scripture – an event that opened his heart – that led to his becoming one of the greatest leaders the Church has known. He was not only a great intellect; one of his most famous quotes is: “Seek not to understand that you may believe; believe that you may understand.” He already knew that mere intellectual gymnastics can only take us so far in our quest for God, and because he was obviously a deeply mystical person, he urged people to open themselves up to the presence of God. He stands as a great example of the necessary balance between head and heart, intellect and faith.
As one writer says, “Augustine’s teaching has become so basic that we don’t realize how original he was at the time.” His definition of a sacrament (an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace), as just one “for instance,” remains central in Christian theology.
Augustine’s most celebrated work is De Civitate Dei (On the City of God), which was a study of the relationship between Christianity and secular society; it was inspired by the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410. That vision of an earthly city and a heavenly city has been very influential – and yet the two entities are portrayed as very separate, antagonistic, even remote. Likely because of the cataclysmic political and social circumstances of his time, Augustine stressed the division between the two, and saw the Church as the only possible way of attaining the heavenly kingdom.
Yet when Jesus prayed “thy kingdom come . . .” it seemed he had a different possibility in mind, a way which might bring heaven and earth together in a new creation.
There was a man who lived in the 20th Century who dared to try to bring the two kingdoms closer together – who challenged the status quo and demanded greater things from his fellow human beings in order that we might align ourselves more closely with the Kingdom of God. He was a man who famously said: “I have a dream . . .”
50 years ago, on August 28 1963, Martin Luther King delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history – a speech that drew on the wisdom of holy scripture as well as the defining documents of the American nation.
Dr. King was speaking about the failure of the United States to live up to the great principles of its founders. Suddenly the singer Mahalia Jackson, standing behind him, shouted out: “Tell them about the dream! And then Dr King said:
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream …
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal’ …
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the [children] of former slaves and the [children] of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood …
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers …
I have a dream today . . .”
King’s message suggested that if you really are Americans, and implied that, if you really are Christians, then certain things inevitably follow – it’s what you have to do.
He challenged not only Americans, but people around the world to get past the old dividing walls – the historic prejudices around race and colour and even religion – and to embrace the vision of equality and unity which we like to think our civilization is based upon.
No one wrote more convincingly of this aspect of Christian truth than St Paul. He said deeply inspired things like: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” and this: “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,” but perhaps most convincingly of all: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith . . . in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is the reality that inspired and motivated people like St Augustine and Dr King.
It struck me, that, in speaking about the great blessing of being in Christ, and of what it means to be in Christ, it is implied that you can be outside of Christ as well. So Augustine’s observation of the two cities is proven true – potentially, we are all God’s children, and yet some refuse to be part of the family.
Let me offer an example:
Two weeks after Dr King’s mountaintop speech, people were gathering for worship at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. Ironically, the preacher had created a sermon for the day called “The Love That Forgives.”
Just as 26 children were assembling in the church hall, a huge bomb detonated — four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack, and all the rest — 22 additional people were injured, some very seriously, most of them children. The explosion blew a hole in the church’s rear wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window, ironically the one which showed Christ leading a group of little children.
Several thugs were later convicted and jailed for the murders, but Martin Luther King, Jr. wired the Governor, the infamous racist George Wallace, to tell him that “the blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”
Perhaps echoing a famous and somewhat ominous passage in Isaiah 57– “Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them. But the wicked are like the tossing sea that cannot keep still; its waters toss up mire and mud. There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked” – Augustine said: “our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Again – what a profoundly true observation of human nature, and how very true of the kind of people who could commit such an atrocity.
Both Augustine and King remind us of the importance of having a calling in life – of using the gifts we have to make a difference for good. So I say to you: we cannot rest as Christians as long as the world remains divided by race or religion or politics – we cannot rest until people begin to see each other with respect and treat each other with dignity – and we must be prepared to be apostles of the way of Christ seeking and serving Christ in all; loving our neighbour as ourselves; striving for justice and peace for all.
As St Augustine said: “Pray as though everything depends of God; work as though everything depends on you.”
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Scripture readings for the day:
Isaiah 40: 3–9
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold, your God!’
Galatians 3: 23—4: 7 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise.
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits* of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.