a homily prepared for Trinity College Chapel, Toronto, Ontario on Matthew 10. 16-26
I think we need to start today’s homily not with theology, but with a bit of animal husbandry. I grew up in the country, familiar with farm residents like horses, milk-cows, cantankerous goats, rabbits, chickens, pigs, and yes, sheep.
Sheep are, if you’ve never met them, pretty delightful creatures. They’re fluffy, just like the cartoon sheep, although like most farm animals a great deal stinkier than any adorable stuffed animal would lead you to suspect. They do fight among themselves and especially the male rams can get pretty territorial. For the most part, they are gentle and trusting, and not too terribly bright. They’re exceptionally vulnerable.
For a wolf, a sheep is lunch on four legs. They are not hyper-vigilant, they don’t run fast, and they tend to clump in a group. Often lambs get lost and stray towards the edges. Sheep are easy to pick off. They don’t fear the stranger in ways that other animals do. All of their anti-predator instincts have been bred out of them–they panic, run around aimlessly, sometimes they even kill each other in “sheep wrecks” when frightened by predators. Predators like wolves, being predators, simply kill the food that is available, and domesticated animals like sheep are basically an all-you-can eat buffet for them.
Wolves, on the other hand, are created to be predators. And predators, well–they eat. When presented with a herd of sheep, wolves can give in to a predatory frenzy–they’re not used to having more than they can eat at a time to kill– so they can kill more sheep than they can eat. For a shepherd to come across the resulting carnage, it’s slaughter beyond heartbreak– financial and personal. The wolf isn’t evil, it’s just a wolf. But to the shepherd, the wolf is evil, dangerous, a villain. Nevertheless, wolves were made to eat, and it’s hard to blame a creature for how it got made.
When Jesus cautions the disciples that they are being sent out as “sheep among the wolves” this is a serious caution– that they are going into a world that is ready to eat them alive– and I think it still rings true today.
Viewed by outsiders and the secular, think of how ridiculous our call must look. In today’s society– run by militarism, power at the top, and wealth in the hands of a few– ideas that would not have been foreign at all to 1st century people like Jesus and the disciples– here we all are, studying texts that preach love above all else, having faith in things we can neither touch nor see, and believing in the power of prayer and contemplation in a world that tells us our net-worth and our productivity is the true measure of our substance.
It is, in the eyes of many people, a probably hilarious undertaking. It involves no acquisition of wealth, no careerism, no “hustling,” and no glitzy retirement plans. It involves true passion for our work–which everybody in the self-help aisle of the bookstore and all of the TED talks go on about “finding” but everybody forgets has the same root word as “suffering” (which is why we talk about the “Passion of the Christ”).
So, why on God’s green earth do we endeavour to do it?
Dietrich Boenhoffer in his The Cost of Discipleship unpacks this passage. He very helpfully points out that Christ’s warning also carries with it an instruction:
Jesus’ “warning can only summon them to abide by the word.” The call toward the word is not a place of uncertainty but of certainty–”
again, quoting Boenhoffer:
“Neither failure nor hostility can weaken the messenger’s conviction that [they] have been sent by Jesus. . . .with this the Lord promises his abiding presence even when they find themselves as sheep among the wolves–defenceless, powerless, sore pressed and beset with great danger.”
Even amidst this warning, we are promised that we do not go forth alone.
Again being inspired by Bonhoeffer, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to today’s Psalm— with its refrain of “Restore us, O God”
Jesus himself, as Bonhoeffer would always be quick to point out prayed the psalms. The ancient poets who wrote this refrain knew of the faithfulness of God– there is within the psalm a knowledge that we will be restored, that God’s face will be shone upon us.
Wolves are everywhere in our society. “We few, we happy few” sheep need to be mindful in our dealings. When faced with wolves– and we all will be– Christ reminds us to cling to the Word and rely on the Holy Spirit. Basically, to not behave like sheep. Anxiety and fear does make us behave like sheep. It disarms us– makes us run around aimlessly, makes our centres not hold, makes our brains unable to function.
Wolves– whether they be toxic people or our own demons of depression, burn out, insecurities, addictions, or the simple pride of inability to ask for help when we need it– will look for that, prey on that. When we are preyed upon, that is when we need most to pray. To turn, as Christ tells us, to the Word. To the Holy Spirit, whose arms can enfold us in safety, in the peace that the world cannot give and renew us in hope and allow us to find our centre again.
Within Christ’s warning, there is a promise. We will not be mere sheep among the wolves, we will be clothed with the armour of light. It is not us alone, the disciples of Christ, but the Spirit of our Father which will speak.
The passage goes on to end with a promise:
“have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” When we speak in the voice of the Spirit, we are empowered to speak the truth “at all times and in all places” we are given strength and courage, even among wolves, to speak the word and to move forward in love.
I’d like to close with a quote from the great poet, Dr. Maya Angelou– who I think explains the touch of love, of this armour of light beautifully in her poem “Touched by an angel,” which ends this way:
“We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free”