A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,
and you give them their food in due season.
A priest friend recently said something about today’s Gospel reading that stuck with me: “Maybe for Christians today, sharing with one another means everyone is a little bit hungry.”
When he said this, at first I just nodded my head and let out a “hmmm.” Because based on a lot of my life experiences, it sounds like the truth.
We can believe that Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 barley loaves and two fish. But that doesn’t change the fact that we very rarely see such clear-cut examples of abundance today. Our economy is uncertain, wages are stagnant, and at least 600,000 people are homeless in the U.S. alone.
Oftentimes, it seems impossible that everyone could have their needs met.
And whether we think of ourselves as having plenty or having little, meeting our own needs is often a source of anxiety. In our individualistic society, we’re forced to save our money for rainy day funds and retirement, or risk future poverty.
So giving something up in the face of risk is a very difficult thing to do. We recognize the need, but we don’t always feel like it’s possible to answer it. Besides, how can we guarantee that our giving will be multiplied? Is it worth it to risk going hungry? And what if the recipients are ungrateful?
These are relevant questions, to be sure. And yet, the Bible is full of radical acts of generosity. The kinds of acts that seemingly lead to abundance for all. We see it in our Gospel and our Old Testament reading today. And you may recall that in the Book of Acts, we see the early church’s willingness to share everything with one another.
The fact is that we claim a religious tradition that tells us that everything we need is available to us through our Savior, Jesus Christ. But in this world of financial and material uncertainty, it’s often hard to act on such a claim. Still, our faith calls us to action.
Which brings me to a story…
Earlier this week, I traveled down to Columbia, South Carolina to pick up my husband, Daniel. He had been down in Florida visiting with his family, and Columbia was roughly the halfway point between his mom’s house and our place here in Virginia.
Daniel must have been a vacation planner in another life, because he’s amazingly good at planning things to do whenever we’re traveling. Before I arrived, he had discovered that Fort Jackson, the local army base, housed the Army Chaplain Museum.
This may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, it was reason enough to travel to Columbia. As I’ve mentioned, I worked at the VA Hospital as a chaplain intern last summer. The experience changed my life. And I have been fascinated by the tensions between serving God and serving the nation ever since. I was THRILLED to have the chance to go on base and tour the museum.
The exhibit began with a retelling of the story of St. Martin of Tours. This is the story I want to retell today…
Martin lived in the 4th century, in a region that is now France. The story goes that Martin was serving as a soldier in the Roman army when he saw a beggar at the city gate. Almost without thinking, he took off his military cloak and tore it in two. He gave half to the beggar and kept the other half for himself.
That night, he had a vision. In it, he saw Jesus wearing the half of his cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say: “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”
But there’s much more to the story than that…
Martin went on to become a monk, and then the Bishop of Tours starting in 371. In the middle ages, his cloak became a relic. Those who took care of it were called cappellanu and eventually all religious people who served the military were called capellini. The shrines that held the cloak were called capella, which means “little cloaks.”
From these words, we derive the words chaplain and chapel.
I love this story for many reasons: The fact that Martin was a soldier who understood his duty to serve all people, even beggars at the city gate. The idea that he gave only half of his robe to the man, symbolically showing their mutual need for warmth. The legacy of his lifelong service to the church. His amazing vision of Christ. But more than anything, I love this story because it reveals an important truth about our faith:
God’s abundance grows when it feels like there’s not enough to go around. And yet, we give of ourselves anyway.
Think about it: Martin’s spontaneous choice to give something up for someone in need changed the course of his whole life. It led him to a lifetime of service to God.
But it also started a movement. Martin’s simple act of tearing his cloak multiplied in a million ways:
The chaplain corps was founded, which aids service members through the extreme highs and lows of military service. And today there are chaplains serving in all sorts of contexts, offering spiritual care to those in nursing homes, hospitals, schools and even corporations.
And every little church plant that started with a chapel can credit Martin’s single act for the name of their building. These chapels have housed and nourished people of faith through more than a thousand years of doubt, hope, fear, and community formation.
They have acted as community centers, and held the sacred services of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. They have both witnessed and sanctified the beauty of our fragile lives.
Chaplains and chapels – these “little cloaks” – have stood as a testament to the way simple acts of faith lead to abundance beyond our wildest imagination.
And it’s all because Martin operated from a different sense of abundance.
He wasn’t thinking about the frigid days ahead. He wasn’t worried about disciplinary action from military higher-ups. In fact, he wasn’t really thinking at all, at least not rationally. Instead, he operated on the impulse of the Holy Spirit, out of some gut sense that what mattered most was being connected to the man in front of him. A man who represented Jesus himself.
Like Jesus at the feeding of the 5,000, Martin saw a need and found a way. He may not have had Jesus’ capacity to physically multiply his material possessions.
But what happened when Martin gave up part of his cloak?
While he may have felt a little bit colder, the man he aided was warm, maybe for the first time in months or even years. In his act of giving, Martin was able to see this beggar on the street as Christ himself. As a whole and sacred person, inherently worthy of care. Through this act, God, working in Martin, met God, living in the beggar, and both were brought more fully into the Body of Christ.
The cloak may have been torn in two, but it was still all there. Only now, it was being shared between these two men.
I know I will always struggle with the fear that I don’t have enough, but Martin’s story tempts me to throw caution to the wind.
It tempts me to believe that Jesus will always multiply our generosity and restore us to wholeness, even though it always involves risk.
We live in a society that places boundaries and barriers on giving. It tells us that we will never have enough, and that we can’t rely on one another. Even worse, it suggests that the scarcity we see in front of us – the lack of material goods, comfort, or stability – is all that there is. So, we close our fists and wrap figurative cloaks ever tighter around ourselves and our possessions.
But imagine what would have happened if the boy with the barley bread and fish had responded in this way. Imagine if he had refused to give what he had, either out of his own insecurity or his insistence that the people in the crowd didn’t work hard enough for the food?
The reality here is that Jesus didn’t multiply out of nothing.
Jesus asks us to take a chance and give from our fragileness and insecurity, not from our abundance. Because we are not the ones responsible for multiplying. That’s Jesus’ job.
In the long run, God multiplies our meager actions into living miracles. And soon enough, we find ourselves in community with one another, doing the hard work of giving and receiving in the midst of risk.
The important thing is that we understand ourselves to truly be together. We belong to one another, whether we are the beggar or the soldier, the boy with his lunch or the hungry crowd. We owe it to each other to envision Christ in one another, and to act on the faith that God will generously provide.
It is worth the risk to reach out our hands, to take up the work started by Martin’s raggedy cloak, and to live into God’s strange abundance, a holy place where having enough is somehow always more than we could have asked for.