This sermon was delivered at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Enid, Okla., Sunday, July 29, 2018.
In reading this week’s lessons my mind was drawn back to a parable – not a biblical parable, but one I think is relevant nonetheless. It’s often, possibly incorrectly, attributed as a Native American story, commonly known as the Parable of the Two Wolves:
An old Cherokee Indian chief was teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he told the young boy, “a fight between two wolves.
One is evil, full of anger, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity and false pride.
The other is good, full of joy, peace, love, humility, kindness and faith.”
“This same fight is going on inside of you, grandson…and inside of every other person on the face of this earth.”
The grandson ponders this for a moment and then asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The old man smiled and simply said, “The one you feed.”
This parable is used frequently enough to now be almost hackneyed. But I think it still speaks well to our readings, in part because the lessons contain a lot of references to feeding – how God feeds, or provides for us, and the natural follow-up question: What are we feeding with the provision we receive?
This question of provision recurs throughout today’s readings, first in the Second Book of Kings, when a man brings the prophet Elisha some loaves of bread, baked from the first fruits of his barley harvest. Elisha tells his servant to feed the people present with the loaves. Problem is, there were about 100 people there, and only a few loaves.
The servant, who apparently knew how to count, asked in protest: “How can I set this before a hundred people?”
But Elisha persisted, saying: “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” And the servant “set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.”
This story should sound similar to our reading from John, when Jesus feeds the Five Thousand. The Gospel account closely follows the basic script of Elisha’s actions in 2 Kings. There is a large crowd to be fed – much larger in the Gospel account of the Five Thousand, which would have probably actually been about 10,000 people, including women and children. There was not enough food in either case. And in both, we hear doubt from those closest to Elisha and Jesus.
John tells us Jesus tested Philip by asking him “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip, again being a man who could count, replies “There’s no way!” He looks at the crowd, weighs out the ways of this world, and replies “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
The rest is well-known. Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish, gives thanks, and feeds the crowd – with not just enough to give them a bite, but enough to fill them, and have enough left over to fill 12 baskets afterward. In this story we hear of God not only providing for those with faith, but providing in abundance.
And, it’s by no means an isolated story. When the Israelites were hungry in the wilderness, God sent the miracles of manna and quail. When a widow was planning to cook a final meal for herself and her son, with just a handful of flour and oil between them and starvation during a great famine, the prophet Elijah told her to have no fear, and her small supply of flour and oil miraculously was not diminished until the famine broke.
In another story from Elisha, a widow tells the prophet her husband has died, a creditor is coming to enslave her sons to settle a debt, and all she has to her name is a little olive oil. Elisha tells her to gather all the jugs she can find from her neighbors and begin filling them from her small supply of oil. Miraculously, she pours out enough oil to sell, and not only settle her debts, but provide ample income for her and her sons.
And, from the Gospels, we have Jesus providing the miracle of wine at the wedding in Cana, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and shortly after that, for good measure, he feeds four thousand more.
Jesus sums up the meaning of all of these, and other examples of God’s provision for our needs, in Matthew 6:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:25-27
Have faith. Do not let worries come between you and God. And God will provide for you.
In today’s reading from Ephesians, St. Paul calls us to reflect on the awesome power of the physical, and more importantly the spiritual gifts that God provides for us.
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints,” Paul writes, “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
When we have faith, and live our lives for God, Paul reaffirms that God will provide, and not just provide a little. God will “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
This is an important part of the Good News. Have faith. Do not fear. And God will provide – and provide in abundance.
That’s great news. But, the problem is, it’s only part of the good news. For many of us, it’s where we stop listening to the story. We hear these stories of God’s provision, and begin to think of God as a cosmic vending machine, doling out fancy and expensive gifts, if we only have faith. If we’re not careful, we can reduce our faith to an anxious waiting game – waiting for God to turn our paltry loaves and fish into a feast.
God does provide, in magnificent ways beyond our comprehension. But, if we’re not careful, we can lose sight of the whole point of our walk with Christ, which isn’t what gifts we receive in this world. The point is what we do with the gifts we receive, and how we use them to serve God and our neighbor.
In terms of the parable of the Two Wolves, the point isn’t what we’re given – the point is which wolf we feed with it. When we receive God’s gifts, when we sit among the Five Thousand and see our loaves and fish multiplied, do we use those gifts to feed the wolf of anger, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity and false pride; or do we use those gifts to feed the wolf “full of joy, peace, love, humility, kindness and faith.”
This is the essential question of how we walk with Christ. How do we use the gifts that God has given us?
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote at length about this inner struggle, as a struggle between choosing to serve the city of man, or the City of God.
“Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves,” Augustine tells us, “the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.”
Where is our focus? Where is our love? Which wolf do we feed? Or, in terms of Augustine: Which city are we building up?
When we focus on ourselves, our own interests and the worries and false glories of this world, the gifts we’re given are squandered. But, when we maintain our focus on loving God, and loving our neighbor, when we live in faith without worry or fear, the gifts we’re given are multiplied to serve God’s children, and to build up His Kingdom.
Jesus understood this in ways we’re called to understand, and He showed it after he fed the Five Thousand. Like we tend to do, the crowd missed the point. He fed them in a miraculous way. He preached the Gospel. And they responded: “Be our king. Lead us to build up the city of man.”
When Jesus heard this, he turned his back and walked away. John tells us: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Jesus wasn’t turning his back on the people. He was stepping away, to maintain focus on using God’s gifts to build up God’s Kingdom, to keep his heart and ours on the true focus of our faith. The next time we see Jesus turn away from this kind of earthly kingship, from a focus on the city of man in favor of the City of God, is on his entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week.
The people, again, want to make Jesus king of this world. In response, he tells the disciples our true purpose, and our path to God’s glory:
“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” John 12:24-26
Jesus tells us whatever gifts we receive from God, whatever seed we’ve been given, we must plant it in the soil of faith. We must let it die to this world – we must feed the wolf of love, and grace and humility – and let the seed of our gifts grow into the eternal Kingdom of God.
Let us pray:
O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the
needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for
your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the
account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards
of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with
you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.