St. Martin of Tours and Dedication of the Church
17 November 2013
Grace Episcopal Church
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we are celebrating both the Feast of St. Martin of Tours and the dedication of this church. As some of you may be wondering why we combine these two celebrations, here’s a little background. First, our little church was consecrated on November 11, 1868, and November 11 is also the feast of St. Martin. Not much attention was given to this connection, however, until our food pantry got underway. It was then decided that we should claim St. Martin as our patron saint, and more recently, our chapel was dedicated to him. Hence this chasuble, that banner, and the icon of St. Martin at the entrance to the chapel were given to us.
But there’s more than just the shared date of the consecration and the feast that led us to call upon St. Martin to be our patron. The banner (and the back of this chasuble) show a picture of the most famous legend about St. Martin. Apparently he was a Roman soldier in the 4th century and was also a catechumen – someone preparing for baptism. He was stationed in Gaul (now, more or less, France) when, one day, he encountered a beggar. It was winter, and the poor old man was half-naked and shaking from the cold. Martin impulsively took his cloak and cut it in two, giving half to the old man. Shortly afterward, Martin had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him wearing the half of his cloak that he had given to the old beggar. Martin had met Christ in the old man. Soon Martin was baptized and left the army, eventually to be ordained. I think the connection between our food pantry and our efforts to help our neighbors in need, and this story of St. Martin is pretty clear.
After his death Martin became an extremely popular saint throughout much of Europe and a great many stories began to be told about him. I’m gonna tell you one of them, just because Iike it. It seems that the people of Tours knew about Martin and wanted him to be their bishop. Knowing that he’d never accept the office, they tricked him into coming to the city by telling him that there was someone in great need of his ministrations. Once in the city, Martin figured out what was going on and tried to run away. At one point he hid in small barn filled with geese. The geese raised such a racket when Martin came in that the people eventually found him and dragged him to the church. Still, Martin almost escaped being made a bishop because some of the church authorities thought it was unseemly as Martin was clearly an inappropriate candidate – it seems that Martin was quite a mess from his brief time with geese – but the people would have none of it, and Martin was made bishop of Tours. Ah, those were the days!
Today’s Gospel reading – that famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew explaining that when we feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger we are also feeding and clothing and welcoming Christ – this reading is obviously a good one for St. Martin . . . and also a good reminder for us and for our pantry. I also find it to be an extremely challenging passage.
It can be so difficult to be generous and kind. If only reality were a little more like the movies. I’m thinking about some movies I’ve seen that take place in 18th or 19th century England, in which there may be a scene or two of aristocratic ladies taking pretty baskets of jams and goodies to the poor. The ladies arrive at a hovel of Dickensian horror, and are greeted with gratitude and servility. And then the ladies return home untouched . . . untouched in all senses of the word. All of us know that reality is very far from such scenes. (A clergy friend once began telling a group of clergy people about a recent problem he had confronted. He began by saying, “I tried to do a good deed.” And we all burst out laughing knowing that trouble was ahead.)
All of us have experiences in which our effort to do good has gone wrong. Perhaps you’ve given someone money only to discover later that you’ve fallen for a scam. Perhaps you’ve believed that you could trust someone, in the hope that your trust would help her, only to learn that you were sadly mistaken. Perhaps you’ve even taken someone under your wing, doing everything you can to help this person get out of a terrible situation, only to discover that every effort you make is going to be thwarted. I could go on; we all have stories.
What to do? I remember a moment a few years ago when a client of our food pantry was really getting to me. Every time I saw him he wanted something special, something in addition to the things he was getting from the pantry. He began seeking me out, dropping by the church almost daily. The moment I’m thinking of came on a day when I was especially stressed; it seemed to me that the entire population of Parkville was asking me for things. (Of course, that’s an exaggeration; but I bet you understand that feeling of being overwhelmed.) And suddenly here was this guy, the guy from the food pantry, standing in front of me asking for something. I could barely contain myself.
And then, for some reason unknown to me, a little interior voice spoke up and said to me, “But what do you preach? Love your neighbor as yourself.” Oh man! Talk about being hoist with one’s own petard! And then I realized that I didn’t even know this guy’s name? Can you imagine? We’d had all these encounters and I’d never even asked his name. He’d just been “somebody” who was bugging me all the time. So I looked at him and asked, “What’s your name?” He told me and I asked him if he would tell me a little about his problems. I got quite a story. I think most of it was probably true. And ya know what happened? He started being more honest with me. And I started being more honest with him.
Oh sure, he still comes by from time to time asking for things. Usually, I have to say no. Which he already knows is what I’m probably going to say. And then he’ll probably tell me a little bit of what’s been going on with him. He usually leaves pretty cheerful, even though he hasn’t gotten anything. And, rather then being stressed and irritated, I’m usually okay with the interruption. And all because we know each other’s names.
Now, I know that we can’t all be saints. I certainly know that I’m not one. But I bet we can all do a little better. And ya know what? I’m not so certain that we have to be overjoyed by each opportunity to do a little better that comes to us, nor do I think that we have to be fond of the person we’re trying to help. Yes, yes, I know that the Summary of the Law says that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. But, as I’ve told you before in other sermons, I don’t think that Jesus is talking about emotional love.
When Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors and ourselves, I think he’s talking about being committed to, and taking action for, the welfare of others. Even the welfare of complete strangers. Trying to help someone out can be difficult, and complicated, and challenging . . . and not at all fun. Trying to figure what it is that IS the best for someone can, in some cases, be an unsolvable intellectual puzzle. And if the person we’re trying to help is half-crazy and very angry, our assistance is unlikely to make that person sane and pleasant. Nevertheless, I am absolutely certain that God commands us to be committed to, and to take action for, the welfare of others. And that this commitment and action are to spread into every corner of our lives.
There’s an additional lesson in all this, a lesson that Martin clearly learned in his encounter with that freezing, nearly naked old man. I think that the lesson is revealed in three little words: “is like unto.” Remember the Summary of the Law . . . the summary of all the commandments in the Bible: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second IS LIKE UNTO it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Upon these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
The second commandment IS LIKE UNTO the first. Loving our neighbor is like loving God. In fact, because I’m a great believer in the Incarnation, I believe that through loving our neighbor we ARE loving God. When we are truly committed to, and take action for the welfare of others . . . even strangers . . . even when it’s difficult and challenging and maybe even heart-wounding . . . then, my friends we are indeed loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind.
We can do it, my friends! Oh no, I don’t suppose that we’ll all become saints. But we can follow a little more closely the example of St. Martin . . . we can follow a little more closely the example of Jesus, for heaven’s sake! We don’t have to try to change the world (at least not right away). Each tiny step toward guaranteeing the welfare of our brothers and sisters is a step in the right direction . . . a step closer to God.
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