Sermon, Proper 8, Year A 2023
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6: 12-23, Matthew 10:40-42
In a Native American legend recorded for You Tube by the Anasazi Foundation, a grandparent tells his grandchild about two wolves who are at war. The grandparent describes the two wolves.
One is a bad wolf full of anger, envy, jealousy, regret, resentment, judgement, bitterness, hate, spite, cruelty, greed, self-pity, guilt, inferiority, lies, false pride, and ego.
The other wolf, the good wolf, is full of peace, joy, hope, love, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence and generosity, empathy, truth, compassion, self-control, and faith.
The grandparent places his hand on his grandchild’s shoulder. “These two wolves are at war inside of me, and also inside of you, and every man, woman and child who walks this earth.”
The grandchild thinks for a moment and then asks the grandparent, “Which wolf will win?”
The grandparent replies, “The one you feed.”
Some versions of this legend point out that both wolves offer something important to us, and that if you feed both properly, you’ll be better off.
But I like the bad wolf/good wolf version better, because in the end, we Christians cannot live with one foot in the world as we know it, where lies, false pride, ego, hate, bitterness and greed are rewarded and even cultivated, while we tell ourselves that where we really want to walk in this world is into that world of peace, hope and joy, God’s reign of love come on this earth.
In order to enter now into God’s reign of peace and joy on this earth, we have to follow the advice of the Native American elder, and leave all that is the “bad wolf” in our lives behind. We have to leave behind anything that invites us to a backward walking.
Leave it behind.
We all know that this simple wisdom is impossible to follow.
Even when we gather around the table and feed the good wolf, the bad wolf lurks at our sides, and we keep slipping that wolf treats.
I would love to hear Paul, Jesus, and this Native American elder discussing the bad wolf and the good wolf. They’d completely agree on the fact that ultimately, each one of us must choose which wolf to feed. Paul talks about this choice by using the metaphor of slavery. Which master will you serve? You can be a slave of sin, or a slave of God. Jesus himself said earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in Chapter 6, that you cannot serve two masters, for you will hate the one and love the other, that you will hold fast to one and despise the other.
Which wolf will you feed? The wolf that will lead you to death, or the wolf that will lead you to the obedience which results in a right relationship with God and with one another?
In today’s psalm, the writer describes those who are walking toward life in God—”Happy are the people who know the festal shout! They walk, O Lord, in the light of your presence. They rejoice daily in your Name, they are jubilant in your righteousness. Truly the Lord is our ruler, the holy One of Israel is our King!”—that is, God is the one that the people walking in the light have chosen to follow because they know that God is a God of mercy and compassion.
If we Christians are walking in this life toward eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord, which is the free gift that God wants to give us, then we have to remember that walking backward with the bad wolf will ultimately lead to death. “For the wages of sin is death,” Paul writes.
Which wolf will you feed?
Let’s turn to the gospel now. For the last few Sundays, we have been hearing about Jesus sending out the disciples, giving them the authority to do Jesus’ work out in the world and to be messengers of God’s grace. The kingdom of God has drawn near, so many are waiting to hear the Good News, and the disciples are the ones that Jesus sends out to bring others into the joy of God’s reign of peace and love.
If the disciples find themselves in a place that won’t welcome them, they are to shake the dust off their feet as they leave that house or town.
In today’s gospel, Jesus describes the reward of those who choose to welcome the disciples. Those people will receive the reward of the righteous, and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one the disciples, even the insignificant disciples, that is, ordinary Christians like us, will not lose their reward.
Who are the people who would welcome the disciples? If you put this question in terms of the legend that the Native American grandparent told, the people who would know to welcome the disciples would be the ones who were already feeding the good wolf. And maybe some of the people, who had been feeding the bad wolf, might decide to take a chance and to welcome in the person bringing good news, and in so doing, giving the good wolf who had been dying of thirst in their lives a cup of cold water and reviving the good wolf in their hearts.
Although Jesus was talking specifically about the reward of those who would welcome the disciples when they went out, these words, as every thing Jesus said and did, reach beyond the immediate context.
These words of Jesus are a reminder that how we feel about others in our hearts is an important part of our lives as Christians—because to be right with God, we must be right with one another, and to be people of welcome.
Those of us who live in Fredericksburg know the story of Richard Kirkland, fighting for the Confederacy, who literally gave water to the enemy during the Battle of Fredericksburg. His monument, standing not far from Sunken Road, says “at the risk of his life, this American soldier of sublime compassion brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg. The fighting men on both sides of the line called him the angel of Marye’s Heights.” Discouraged by his fellow soldiers, and shot at by snipers on his first attempt to bring water to the wounded who were crying out in agony, Kirkland persisted, and once the enemy realized what he was doing, the shooting stopped. His own side cheered him as he carried water across the lines.
I believe that Richard Kirkland was able to make this brave decision to act compassionately toward his enemies because he had been feeding his good wolf for a very long time. He could see beyond the colors of the uniforms the soldiers wore, and saw instead people just like him, people who were suffering and dying. Not the enemy, but hurting human beings.
There’s no mention that Kirkland told anyone that he was doing what he did in the name of Jesus—but his courageous act made God’s indiscriminate love visible in the horror of all that terror and mayhem that the fighting had caused. He was acting as a disciple, and those who let him carry out his compassionate act could see God’s reign of love at work on that awful field of death.
When Matthew wrote his gospel, his story was not only about the twelve disciples, but he was also having Jesus speak to those in Matthew’s community, the early Christians who were being sent out to carry the good news.
And because scripture is the living word, Jesus is also speaking to us. We are the ones who go out to bring the good news and who hope to be welcomed. And we are also the ones who receive those who bring us good news when we are in need.
How we will travel, and how we respond to others, both as disciples, and as those who receive the disciples God sends to us, will be determined in the moment by who we have been feeding—the good wolf or the bad wolf at war in our hearts.
Which wolf will win?
The one you feed.