In front of the state capitol building in Albany stands an equestrian statue. “Equestrian” is a fancy term for “guy on a horse.” The guy on the horse in Albany is General Philip Sheridan, a great Union hero of the Civil War who was born in the capital city. Sheridan was a major figure in the final campaigns of the War Between the States, and helped drive Robert E. Lee to surrender.

So he was instrumental in freeing the slaves in the South. And then the government sent him West...to deal with another oppressed group, the American Indian. And his career there was perhaps not as heroic. Sheridan is credited with the notorious saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” (The story is that a tribal leader was introduced to Sheridan. “I am a good Indian,” the tribesman assured the General. To which the General replied: “The only good Indians I have ever seen were dead”). Sheridan certainly was a major figure in the dispossession and oppression of America’s Native population.

So...hero, a victorious commander who helped end injustice? Or villain, one who helped steal the land and destroy the way of life of the American Indian? It’s complicated...

Well, at least we know that Benedict Arnold was a villain, right? Kind of. Arnold certainly sold out his country. And yet...before that, Arnold was a great military hero of the American cause, the one who had secured victory over the British at the battle of Saratoga (often regarded as the turning point of the Revolutionary War). Had Arnold been killed at Saratoga, he would probably be remembered as one of the greatest of American heros.

So this hero and villain thing is hard to sort out. A person can be a hero at one stage of their life and a villain at another!

Even in the Bible things are a little murky. Great heroes of the faith are often guilty of serious lapses. Abraham lied twice about his marital status. Jacob was a bit of a con man. Paul refused to work with Barnabas because Barnabas was friendly with Mark (sounds like high school!) Paul also yelled at the high priest once, but apologized immediately once he realized it was the high priest. Peter denied Jesus three times, then later wavered on the issue of whether Gentile Christians had to keep kosher. Perhaps the most horrifying of all is David–he is called “a man after God’s own heart,” yet he pretty much “hit for the cycle” of Commandment violation in his relationship with Bathsheba and in the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite.

There is a Christian bumper sticker that says: “I am not perfect, just forgiven.” Perhaps this is true of Bible heroes, too. Many of them had major lapses. But the Spirit ultimately brought them to repentance, and they found God’s forgiveness.

The only untarnished hero in history is the Lord Jesus. Scripture tells us that He was “tempted like us in every way, but without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15 ). He had no lapses or skeletons in His closet. “Sing me more songs about Jesus my hero,” Billy Joe Shaver once wrote in a song. And if a hero is someone of absolute, complete virtue, there is only one possible hero: the sinless One, Jesus Christ, who committed the most heroic deed of all time: He gave Himself into death for the salvation of the whole world.

When we look for other heroes of faith besides Jesus, we’re dealing with flawed people. When Mother Teresa’s letters were published a few years ago, many people were horrified that she struggled with doubt and unbelief. But though she was a “holy person,” she still was not perfect. Just like Jacob and David and Peter and Paul. One of God’s great miracles is that He can do wonderful things through seriously flawed human beings!

You have a hero inside you. So do I. You also have a villain inside you. So do I. A basic Lutheran belief is that we are “saint and sinner at the same time”–that our lives are really a struggle between the old me and the new me, between my sinful side and the Spirit-renewed saint inside me. Paul talks powerfully about this struggle in Romans 7, where he tells us that I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing (7:19). So in a way our lives are like a Western gunfight, with the heroic marshal standing up against the bad hombre. The villain is not somebody outside of ourselves–the villain is a part of our very selves. But the marshal is our real self, and we’re rooting for him to triumph.

Since I keep talking Western, let’s take a look at a Cherokee legend about an old  man who told his grandson, “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is 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 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, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,“Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

So we want to make sure that the hero within us is well fed. Emerson had this to say about the feeding of heroes: The hero is not fed on sweets–daily his own heart he eats. (Don’t be impressed that I can whip out an Emerson quotation–I got it from Jack Webb in an old Brando movie). However, rather than chowing down on his own cardiac organ, our inner hero needs to internalize God’s heart– as expressed in God’s Holy Word. and in the precious Body and Blood of Christ. That is something both nourishing and sweet! May our inner hero, well-fed, triumph over the villain inside–through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit!

            God loves you and so do I!