The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366

The Story of Monnica

  • May 10, 2015
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for May 10, 2015 (Pascha 6, Year B – MOTHER’S DAY)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             1 John 5:1-13; Canticle R; John 15:9-17

Title:               The Story of Monnica

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah – Christ – has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child” (1 John 5:1).

My dear friends, it is right for you and me to celebrate the profound claim that God has given birth to us, that God is our Father – our Parent – from whose spiritual womb we have come forth into a new life of grace.

We are bold to claim this as the deepest truth of our identity.

But of course, relationships between parents and their children are not always smooth and comfortable and easy, are they?

Let me tell you the story of the relationship between Monnica and her son, the great Augustine of Hippo, the African Bishop born in the 4th century who is known throughout the world to this day. Monnica was fairly young when she gave birth to Augustine, her first-born son who came into the world in the year 354 when Monnica was only 23 years of age.

It is difficult to find a stronger mother figure in the storied of the early Church.

You must understand that she was a staunchly faithful Catholic – which, in those days, did NOT mean loyalty to the Bishop of Rome but rather loyalty to the ecumenical councils, to the commonly held faith embodied in the Nicene Creed.

Ecumenical and catholic (small “c” catholic) mean approximately the same thing.

She was a faithful Christian in line with the faith as held throughout the Roman world, and opposed to the various heretical groups on the fringes of the Church.

But there was a problem. Her son! Augustinus – in the Latin – was a brilliant young man who was drawn to the deep philosophical ideas of Manicheeism –the chief rival to the Christian faith at that time.

Augustine found the Christian faith to be too simple and boring – good enough, perhaps, for peasant farmers and housewives, but certainly not sufficient for a mind as great as his.

Yes, he wore arrogance like a crown, as so many young men have done throughout history. But Augustine also found the schools in North Africa to be beneath him, so he determined to move to Italy to study with the greatest teachers of the Empire.

Monnica the devout mother was terrified of this idea. She did not want to lose her son’s presence in her life, and she was certain that he would lose his soul entirely by living in the big city. You have to understand: this is akin to a young man leaving the farm in Nebraska today and moving to New York City.

As you can imagine, his mother was worried sick. She prayed and wept and prayed and wept. She begged him not to go, and she begged the Lord to stop this horrible thing from happening.

So guess how he got away? Augustine was able to get aboard his ship and sail across to Italy only through deception. He told Monnica that he was going down to the port to say goodbye to a friend of his and he promised her that he was not leaving. That was the only way that he could escape from her protective maternal shield.

But he did leave, sailing over to Italy and eventually traveling to Milan where the seat of the Empire was at that time – and his mother back at home nearly died from grief and a broken heart.

Now, this is where the story becomes interesting! And this is where we can see the grace of God at work in amazing ways.

Every ambitious young man at that time studied rhetoric – the art of public speaking. This was the key to education in the Roman Empire. Augustine was no exception and he taught rhetoric in Milan while also sitting at the feet of the masters. And it just so happened that the undisputed master of rhetoric in Milan t that time was the Bishop, Ambrose.

And if Augustine wanted to hear the great Ambrose speak, then he had to go to church! To the great Cathedral of Milan.

As Augustine states in his Confessions, he himself “could not [yet] breathe the pure and simple breeze of [God’s] truth” (Confessions 5:11.21, Oxford University Press, 1991).

Oh, he went to church, but his heart was hard and his defenses were up.

He wrote about listening to Ambrose’s preaching in this way.

“My pleasure was [only] in the charm of his language…I was not interested in learning what he was talking about. My ears were only for his rhetorical technique” (Confessions 5.13-14).

But guess what? Back in Africa, Monnica was praying, and praying, and praying for her son. I don’t know if you can find an example of one who prayed more fervently and more faithfully than Monnica! When she spoke with her local clergy about this with tears in her eyes, he exhorted her not to worry and said, “The son of these tears cannot perish” (Confessions 3:12.21)

Have you already guess what happened?

The prayers and tears of this mother were honored.

Finally, her son’s heart was softened. Augustine’s defenses were worn down by the mercy of God and the preaching of Ambrose.

One day, he was with his friend, wrestling in his soul and reading the letters of the apostle Paul, when “all the shadows of doubt were dispelled” (Confessions 8:12.29) from his heart.

Finally, he embraced the Son of God and found true life. Peace and joy flooded his heart.

Monnica, protective mother that she was, had already followed her son to Milan so that she could look after him!

So who do you think was the first person that Augustine sought out to tell of his conversion of heart to the Son of God?

Of course you do! It was his mother. Just as it should be!

As he described it in his Confessions, Monnica “was filled with joy…she exulted, feeling it to be a triumph…and she [realized] that [God] had granted her far more than she had long been praying for in her unhappy and tearful groans” (Confessions 8:12.30).  *****

In the back of the Prayer Book there is a section of various prayers for us to use as needed to guide our prayers. One of those is titled: “For those we love” (P. 831). And it reads like this:

Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to your never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that you are doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for.

Knowing that you are doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for.

Monnica was convinced that her son’s leaving would lead to his spiritual demise, that he would be forever a stranger to the love of Christ. Little did she know that God had other plans.

In John’s Gospel, it is reported that the Lord said this: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name” (John 15:16).

Monnica asked and it was given to her, though not in the way that she ever expected. And through her tears and prayers and witness, her son bore fruit for Christ that will last forever.

Let this be an encouragement to all of you mothers and grandmothers here this morning. I have heard many of you lament over the fact that your children or grandchildren seem to have little or no time for Christ or his Church.

But truth be told, that is beyond your control. Let it be known that you have prayed and prayed and prayed and – finally – trusted in the One who has shown us what love is all about  – by laying down his life for us.

We conclude now with a Mother’s Day blessing.

And so today, as we reflect upon what it means to abide in Christ, to follow his commandments, and to trust in his saving love, let’s stop now and give our blessing to all of the mothers in our midst.

Every woman is a mother, or is at least a potential mother in some way to those around them. Therefore, I ask each woman here now to stand up all together so that we might bless you.

And let all the rest of the congregation – all the men and the children – please repeat after me.

O women of God, our sisters,

our mothers, our grandmothers,

please bless us now

with your wisdom and grace.

Show us how to love

as Christ loves us.

May God bless you

with complete joy and peace

today and every day

as you walk

in the path of Christ.

Amen.

May it be so, today and always. Amen.

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