What does the story of St Martin and the cloak mean to you?
Six Perspectives Offered
Kristine Wellington, Head Steward, Congregation
When we give we also receive, simply from the act of giving. Juliet Stevenson summed it up at the Autumn Lecture Series last Sunday. ‘As a driver, I hope the simple act of giving way to one other driver on the road could mean this driver could return the favour and let someone else in and thus create the possibility of a continuum of good deeds throughout the day.
One member of our congregation said ‘If you are in a position to show kindness to anyone, especially the have nots, do it because you don’t know if you are helping an angel.’ Another said, ‘It’s a surprise that Martin actually noticed the beggar; next, that he “ruined” a good quality army supply cloak in order to give the man some warmth; and the outcome for Martin was the biggest surprise of all.’ Another said,
I am the beggar who blindly waited in the cold mires of despair, miraculously transformed and made whole, steadfast love and faithfulness met. A mystery revealed.
Christ with me
Christ in me
Christ covering me
I am lifted up, a new chapter of my life has begun.
Christ all around me in all I see.
Another said, ‘I don’t think I will ever pass the St. Martin’s statue again without noticing it and asking myself questions like: (1) whose needs will I respond to today? (2) Will I realize that it will be, in the spiritual sense of the word, the needs Christ wants to respond to in others that I am responding to when I share with them from my material resources, or my time, or my talents? – Be kinder than necessary to everyone, as everyone is dealing with something. Everyone is a beggar and is begging. Recognize and respond to what every person we meet is begging for – that is, with our material resources, our time or with our gifts or talents – half our cloak.
We all take away a special feeling when the hormone serotonin is released. The act in itself is received by others in the exchange we are enriched it makes us feel good. There are 7 or 8 foods you can eat to release serotonin, however the act of doing something for others is so much more nourishing. In giving and doing good we actually feel God.
Debbie Giwa, Trustee, St Martin’s Charity
‘When saw we thee naked, and clothed thee?’ Gospel of Matthew
The story of St Martin and the cloak is a reboot of the Gospel of St Matthew. Through St Martin, Christ addressed questions that folks often asked: Where and how to encounter Christ. Christ has needs. Those needs cry out through each of us, but they are not simply a cry for prayers. St Martin quickly came to realise this when he prayed and no one came to the beggars’ aid.
The Yoruba speaking people of Nigeria say eniyan laso – meaning people are robes. It is when we give of ourselves that others are covered. When St Martin tore his robe in two, he gave part of himself to cover another. It was not a gift from a surplus stock. It wasn’t something he had to spare. It was all he had – himself to spare. Much to the manner of the paschal lamb. Just like Jesus.
Jesus rejoiced with the angels in heaven for this act, not so much because St Martin saw him in the beggar, but because Jesus saw himself in St Martin.
We’re all therefore challenged to encounter Jesus – and not just in cathedrals and Basilicas. Christ is hiding in plain sight. He is in you and I, in areas of our lives that yearn for another to reach out and touch with friendship, love, help, compassion, sensitivity, empathy; to fill craters of fear, loneliness, despair, lack, hopelessness and more.
When we meet the needs of others’ as St Martin did, we meet the needs of Christ and uphold his teachings, evoking a celebration in heaven. Christ is not hidden, he’s in plain sight. I am keen to get heaven in a festive mood, how about you!
Kerry Mutter, Business Development Director, SMITFL
Throughout history, there have always been people who have nothing, people who have little and people who have in abundance. Often it is those with little that will show the most generosity to those with nothing, though frequently after hoping to see whether those with more to offer will do so first.
People around the world, like the beggar, suffer daily. Collectively those who pass by could relieve this. Charities’, aid workers and many well-meaning groups and individuals around the globe, like Martin – are under resourced for this task – Always praying that someone with more will offer assistance and when they don’t or won’t, Martin and those like him share what they can.
As a child I was that beggar. I cried as my father walked away from us. I cried when his employers took away our home and I cried as my brother and I slept on the streets of Chichester with our mother. My father, a man with much who turned us away, and many people with plenty walked past us for a day and a night. I was nine.
Thanks to the woman who shared her cloak. She gave us a car ride to a homeless shelter, apologising profusely through the journey that she had no space in her tiny flat to offer us, no money she could share, but there were fruit pastilles if we wanted? These small acts of kindness that took her out of her way, no doubt saved my family. And for these acts of kindness I remain forever grateful.
But those with more could and should have helped. Stories like mine are not rare, and those who help us are and they should be applauded. But imagine, if every one of us helped the vulnerable – If those with more – with much larger cloaks, as well as those with less, were to offer half to those without? Then we would all have cloaks, we would all be warm and fed and safe.
My cloak is not large, or very thick, but I will share it.
Wilson Yu, Chair, Chinese Sub-Committee
I have been coming to St Martin’s since I was a boy, and over the years I have been telling the story of Martin many times, particularly to explain to the newcomers when they are surprised to see there are often someone, who seem like homeless, seating at our service. They may not be joining the service, but they are here to find shelter and peace. I have been telling many friends that this is how our church has following the example of Martin and serve the homeless through the work of The Connection. This Martin, the Roman soldier, may seem very distance from us in the Chinese Congregation, but on reflection, the generosity of Martin can be found within us that I almost overlooked.
Today our community may be small, our resources are a bit tight, we may not have the greatest ability to change the world. But what struck me most is that I have witnessed brothers and sisters giving generously, not only their money but also their time and their energy. Ever since I was a boy, I look up to those who open their homes to welcome others, or those who spent their precious time to walk with others. It is their willingness to serve and share their personal space and provide hospitality to many overseas students and workers and new immigrants who do not have a place they can call home, that has formed the foundation of our community. Martin cut his cloak in half and share it with the beggar, these people before me have cut their time and homes in half and share it to those in need. I was once an overseas student here on my own, and like many other overseas students I was once feeling lost and lonely. It is their selfless acts that enable me and many others to encounter the love of God. It is the countless home Bible study groups that allows me to explore the word of God. It is the many meals and laughter, worries and hugs, ups and downs we shared that enable me to feel the warmth of God’s love. They never consider themselves small and stop giving, it is their generous giving that leads to the establishment of the Hall Ming Wah Centre to service the Chinese community in London. All their devotion has inspired me and many others to see Jesus on earth.
We all shared Martin’s cloak and so we shall continue to share ours with others.
Pam Orchard, CEO, The Connection
How would you want a close relative to be treated if they were homeless on the streets? The story of St Martin role models the responsibility we for each other, beyond familial ties. His gesture appears initially as a straight-forward, practical act with immediate benefit. However, for me, this presents a challenge.
When we consider the naked beggars of today at the Connection, one could be forgiven for considering the use of his cloak to be rather short term and inadequate.
- The woman who discharged herself from hospital in order to get heroin, then crashed out in a doorway on Shaftsbury Avenue, still in her hospital gown;
- The couple, locked in a coercively controlling relationship, refusing help. One is HIV positive, elderly, physically and mentally unwell, financially exploited. The other is younger, manic, violent, has no recourse to public funds and a serious drug habit. He’s already assaulted two of our staff. The older of the two died on Tuesday;
- The British man who is convinced he is from a Moorish nation that does not legally exist. His unwillingness to accept his real nationality means he won’t accept benefits, nor any help which will enable him to get off the streets into the services he desperately needs.
The naked beggar in the story represents a wide array of, complicated, challenging situations denoting desperation and exclusion. It is easy to see the cloak representing Connection’s services. Each half of the cloak perhaps symbolises the combination of structural policies which fuel social injustice alongside the individual decisions people take which sabotage their chance of a good life.
However, I think that the most powerful interpretation of the use of the cloak is this. To address both the immediate and underlying problems faced by the beggar requires significant personal sacrifice, not a token gesture. St Martin didn’t give up a small part of his cloak. He shared it with the beggar equally. I bet St Martin was a lot colder and less comfortable afterwards. If overcoming the deep social injustice we witness at the Connection was as simple as providing practical support in the way the story might at first indicate, we’d have clothed, housed, healed and trained all the naked beggars across Europe by now.
How much of my cloak am I prepared to give? How cold and uncomfortable am I prepared to be? How much personal inconvenience can I tolerate when presented with the reality of the dilemmas and conundrums the naked beggar might bring? For me, the story of the cloak opens out the question of the individual cost we might be prepared bear to achieve a more socially just, equal world.
Malcolm Butler, Chair, St Martin’s Trust
I confess that my immediate thought went back to being told of gallantry around a cloak, given up by a soldier to reinforce hierarchy and honour, by the likes of Francis Drake for Queen Elizabeth.
The account of Martin the soldier, however, tells a different story with three necessary steps. 1) Martin sees a person in need and 2) seeks to find resolution in prayer. But, with the absence of any help for the beggar, and as he cannot ignore what he’s been praying for, the third step is action. We all identify and wish suffering removed, but few of us then break with our current role and take this 3rd step.
Martin becomes the vessel of resolution to his own prayers – prayer worked. By cutting his cloak in half there is a swift reframing of the scene, like Alexander and the Gordian knot. The situation is irreparably transformed by an act of parity; the dividing and giving up one half of a Roman centurion’s cloak is not just sharing. The beggar doesn’t have a dependency on Martin (there is no hierarchy), he has been given aid in equal measure to his saviour. There is equivalence, one person helping another with the responsibility and dignity of equality in that revolutionary gesture of a moment.
In Martin’s subsequent dream the anonymous beggar could have been anyone; or Jesus. In turn am I able to see everyone with equality and compassion if I see others as myself? This is a far better mantra for life than the honourable self-selection of Francis Drake remembering the correct gesture, but only to an elite. Thanks to Martin it now sounds easy to say – “wish” unto others – , but a little harder to say – “do” unto others, as you would have them do unto you – and though all of us wish this, far fewer can act like a saint and do it.
Being with God on the Edge
A sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells for St Martin’s Patronal Festival
Readings for this service: 1 Peter 2: 4-11, Luke 10: 38-42
I want tonight to explain and explore the vision statement that the PCC has chosen for the life of our congregation. The statement is Being with God on the edge. Just six words. I’m going to take it in three stages, beginning with on the edge.
Peter, adapting the prophet Hosea, tells us, ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’ In other words, Christianity begins on the edge. We are Gentiles. We’re on the edge of the Old Testament story, which is about Israel. By the mystery of God’s will we’ve been included in the glory of God’s redemption. It’s not that we’re the centre of the story and we, like St Martin, benevolently reach down and assist the marginal people; we are the marginal people, lucky to be included in Israel’s story. We’re not St Martin in the story; we’re the beggar. And even more than that, Jesus is the one who was at the centre of the story and for our sake became marginal. He was rejected by mortals, he was the stone that the builders rejected, he was the beggar in the story of St Martin; he is the one we’re called to follow.
When we see a waning comedienne or orchestral conductor, we’re likely to say, ‘She’s lost her edge.’ And discloses a second layer of meaning to the word edge. Edge also means ever-new, always making new beginnings, never afraid to stretch, risk, discover. Put the two together – the cutting edge of newness and the divine edge of humility – and you have where St Martin-in-the-Fields belongs. Every PCC meeting, every Patronal Festival, every annual meeting, we should ask ourselves, ‘Have we lost our edge?’ – and that doesn’t just mean innovation, discovery, experiment, but, ‘Are we hanging out with the right people?’ – is this a place where asylum-seekers and refugees meet people with dementia, where people experiencing mental illness meet those who have physical disabilities, where those whose life at home is so terrible they prefer to be on the streets meet those whose life has caved in through the end of a relationship, loss of work, or social discrimination? And it’s not that in our benevolence we have mercy on such people – it’s that in significant ways we are such people, and that such people show the whole community what it is to believe, to be faithful, hopeful and loving. Those on the edge teach the church who God is. That’s why St Martin’s is committed to being on the edge: because that’s where God is.
And that brings us to being with. I’ve been talking about being with for 13 years now and it’s hugely gratifying to me to see so many parts of St Martin’s not only embrace the terminology but, more importantly, embody the practice so inspiringly. I regard ‘with’ as the most important word in our language, and certainly in theology. With is the reason for our existence – God made all things so as to be with us in Jesus. With is the purpose of our life – to make and restore genuine relationships of trust, understanding and care, sometimes intimate and joyful, other times boundaried and respectful, in every case demonstrating what Isaiah 43 describes as being precious, honoured, and loved.
When we act for others we can be full of good intentions but we can often fail to represent their true concerns and more importantly we can often lose the relationship that’s more important than the action. Even when we work with others we can get so captivated by the goal to be achieved that we can lose sight of the relationship that’s invariably more significant than any goal. The person that’s achieved amazing things but has trodden on every colleague in order to reach such dizzy heights has no one with whom to celebrate their success. If we go to the pearly gates alone, God will say to us, ‘Where are the others?’
The story of St Martin and the beggar is in the end an account of two people who realised their need of each other. It’s the relationship that matters more than the cloak. Our society’s fragile not because of a shortage of cloaks but because of the challenge of restoring broken relationships often seems too much. Christianity is in the end a story about how God healed a broken relationship – with us – and risked everything to do so. Christianity is fundamentally about restoring broken relationships with God, ourselves, one another and creation. It’s about rediscovering the with.
People sometimes worry that being with sounds passive. But the point of our activity is to be present where God is present. We don’t try to put the world to rights, as if we didn’t believe God had already done that; we affirm that saving the world is God’s job not ours, and we seek to show up where God shows up, follow in Christ’s footsteps, and try to keep up with the way the Spirit is working. Being with God doesn’t necessarily mean sitting at Christ’s feet like Mary; if God is at work, we want to be by God’s side. But being with God certainly doesn’t mean being like Martha, who in this story defies Christ’s call and contravenes Christ’s invitation and sets off in a headstrong way to do things as she sees fit. The truth is that in heaven there’ll be no problems to fix, no crises to put right; we’ll spend eternity being with God, with one another, with ourselves and the renewed creation. Our calling is to live God’s future now; which means to seek restored relationships with those with whom we’ll be spending forever.
Finally the middle word in the vision statement: God. The nineteenth-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, in my view Christianity’s greatest-ever critic, complained that Christians used God as a trump card in their quest to claim that they were better than other people. This is what he said. ‘Faith gives a person a peculiar sense of their own dignity and importance. Believers find themselves distinguished above other people, exalted above them; they know themselves to be persons of distinction, in the possession of peculiar privileges; believers are aristocrats, unbelievers plebeians. God is this distinction between and pre-eminence of believers above unbelievers, personified.’ These are painful words, close to the bone. They should be a warning to us as to every congregation. We don’t worship God as a means to our own self-advancement, in this world or the next. We worship God for God’s sake alone. Doing so doesn’t make us better than anyone else. It may well make us sorely aware of our own shortcomings. Above all it makes us grateful for God’s mercy and awestruck by God’s glory.
Sometimes people wonder if amidst all our commercial, cultural and charitable activity, God will get lost. I think it’s the opposite. Christians are always in danger of supposing that, because God has promised to be made known in scripture and the Eucharist, God isn’t available elsewhere. We’re always at risk of trying to be more spiritual than God. At St Martin’s our multiple and various activities mean we daily open our hearts to encountering God in a host of places to which conventional churches close the door. At St Martin’s we’re experiencing a holistic, body-mind-and-spirit way of meeting a God who is eternal truth become flesh and blood.
St Martin’s is famous for its practical Christianity and its accessible musical programme. We’re inhospitable to pretentiousness and uncomfortable with words like best, excellence and success, because they sit uneasily with the humility we seek to embody. We’re about living God’s future now. We’re about spending today with the people with whom we shall be spending eternity. We’re about living a whole-body gospel, flesh and blood, spirit and truth. We’re about seeing God’s face in the ones whom society and too often church have rejected. We’re about following God’s initiative, walking in Christ’s footsteps, catching up with the work the Spirit is already doing.
Remember: our founding story is of a man who had a dream. A dream in which he shared what he had, and all had enough, and he came face to face with Christ. We’re a community seeking to live that dream. A dream in which we abide with God, as God’s companions, now and forever. Let’s live the dream together, by being with God on the edge.