Homilies

Which Wolf Will You Feed?

[Readings: Sirach 15:15-20; I Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37]

Fr. Michael Reding

The 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, February 12, 2017

I’m pretty certain that if Jesus had gone to seminary where I went, he would have gotten an “F” (or maybe a “D”) in homiletics. …My professor insisted that the most important rule of preaching is to always have one clear point – not two or three – but one clear point – in every homily that you give.

We’re now in the midst of reading Jesus’ greatest homily – his Sermon on the Mount – and it’s clear that he’s thrown that rule out the window…. We started this reading two weeks ago; it’s going to continue for another two weeks. And in those five weeks, we’ll get only halfway through the sermon, and Jesus will have probably about twenty different points that he’s making…

If we had to find a common thread in Jesus’ words today, I think it’s probably those lines that come at the beginning about choosing to follow the commandments – making a fundamental choice… to embrace God’s will.

It’s an echo of what we heard from Sirach in our first reading today:

If you choose to keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand… Before [you] are life and death, good and evil, whichever you choose shall be given you.

It reminds me of that legend about the two wolves. Maybe you’ve heard it before:

An old Cherokee elder was teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it’s between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other [wolf] is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith… The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, as well.”

…The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

…The old man simply replied, “The one that you feed… The one… that you feed.”

…. We can make fundamental choices about which wolf we feed. I see it in people all the time. I see two people (unknown to each other) who have suffered similar trials, and one of them becomes angry and bitter, mean-spirited and resentful, while the other one chooses instead to find serenity, compassion, empathy, and faith.

Different people make different choices. And (thanks be to God) sometimes one person chooses to change the fundamental option that they follow… After years of feeding the wolf of anger and resentment, that person chooses instead to feed the wolf of love and compassion, and this, my friends… is conversion…

Father Gregory Boyle shares several examples of this in his book, Tattoos on the Heart… It’s the story of his work with gang members in Los Angeles – kids who grow up angry and bitter and instinctively violent because of the hardships they’ve suffered – the violence that’s been dealt to them… In one story, he writes about a young man named George… He says this:

On a Saturday in 1996 I am set to baptize George at Camp Munz (a correctional camp where he’s been sentenced)… He wants to schedule the event to follow his successful passing of the GED exam… He sees it as something of a twofer celebration.

I actually know George and his nineteen-year-old brother, Cisco. Both are gang members from a barrio in the projects, but I have only really come to know George over his nine-month stint in this camp. I have watched him move gradually from his hardened posturing to being a man in possession of himself and his gifts. Taken out of the environment that keeps him unsettled and crazed, not surprisingly, he begins to thrive at Camp Munz.

Now… he is nearly unrecognizable. The hard vato with his gangster pose has morphed into a thoughtful, measured young man, aware of gifts and talents previously obscured by the unreasonable demands of gang life…

The Friday night before George’s baptism, Cisco, George’s brother, is walking home before midnight when the quiet is shattered, as it so often is in his neighborhood, by gunshots. Some rivals creep up and open fire, and Cisco falls in the middle of the street, half a block from his apartment. He is killed instantly…

I don’t sleep much that night. I consider canceling my presence at Mass the next morning at Camp Munz [in order] to be with Cisco’s grieving family, but then I remember George and his baptism…

When I arrive before Mass, with all the empty chairs in place in the mess hall, there’s George standing by himself, holding his newly acquired GED certificate. He heads toward me, waving his GED and beaming. We hug each other. He’s dressed in a borrowed, ironed, crisp white shirt and a thin black tie… I am desvelado, completely wiped out, yet trying to keep my excitement in line with George’s.

At the beginning of Mass, with the mess hall now packed, I ask him, “What is your name?”

“George Martinez,” he says, with an overflow of confidence. “And, George, what do you ask of God’s church?” “Baptism,” he says with a steady, barely-contained smile…

It is the most difficult baptism of my life. For as I pour water over George’s head: “Father… Son… Spirit,” I know that I will walk George outside alone afterwards and tell him what happened.

As I do, and I put my arm around him, I whisper gently as we walk out onto the baseball field, “George, your brother Cisco was killed last night.”

I can feel all the air leave his body as he heaves a sigh that becomes a sob in an instant. We land on a bench. His face seeks refuge in his open palms, and he sobs quietly. But most notable… is what isn’t present in his rocking and gentle wailing.

I’ve been in this place many times before. There is always flailing and rage and promises to avenge things…  But there is none of this in George. It’s as if the commitment he’s just made [in baptism –] in water, oil, and flame has taken hold and his grief is pure and true and more resembles the heartbreak of God.

George seems to offer proof of the efficacy of this thing we call sacrament, and he manages to hold all the complexity of this great sadness, right here, on this bench, in his tender weeping… I had previously asked him in the baptismal rite, after outlining the basics of our faith and the commitment “to live as though this truth was true.” “Do you clearly understand what you are doing?”

And he paused, and he revved himself up in a gather of self and soul and said, “Yes, I do.” …And yes, he does… In the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope. George clings to his hope and his faith and his GED certificate, and he chooses to march, resilient, into his future…

Now, in Boyle’s book, not everyone makes the same fundamental choice that George makes. Some continue to feed the angry wolf. Some who choose to feed the peaceful wolf become, themselves, victims… There’s no guarantee that our fundamental choice will be rewarded by other people in this world.

But we can be certain that the choice itself… is its own reward – that we will find a kind of contentment and peace that will bring us lasting joy… in life with God… here, and in the life to come.

And while most of here don’t live with the kind of suffering and violence that surrounded George, each of us does face, throughout our lives, the same fundamental choice: which wolf… will we feed? …Will we choose the way of love and hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith? …Will we choose… the way of life?