St. Augustine, April 17, 2016; Easter 4; Year C; John 10:22-30
In the Name of God: the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier --
It is no secret that we are a basketball family – or at least half of us is. At certain times during the year, basketball seems to permeate our very lives. As some of you know, we just traveled to Indianapolis for the Women’s NCAA Final Four. And as a four time winner, they broke a record. We go every year and when they don’t win? Well it isn’t pretty watching Bud who seems to heart and soul into it.
As for me, I see myself as a patient soul who will sometimes be coerced into going to a game – especially if dinner or a trip is involved. But my own enchantment with it is far below Bud’s. My favorite basketball story comes from an old commercial – one from probably ten or twelve years ago. It was a commercial for a major long distance carrier, and it went like this: the great Michael Jordan was on the phone with Tweetie Bird.
Tweetie was calling from his nest, and the two were having an argument about something. And as the scene unfolds, it turns out that the argument had something to do with family connections. Tweetie was trying to claim someone – or some bird – as a relative.
Every time I watched this commercial, I would find myself caught up in the argument – drawn in by memory tracks that were wired into my brain sixty years ago during Saturday afternoons at the movies. Tweetie pushed Michael Jordan to agree with him, and Jordan said, “Tweetie, I really don’t think you two are related.” “I do,” Tweetie says – in calm, clear wide-eyed logic. “We have the same last name.”
And when the viewers got a look at Tweetie’s nest, and there it was – a framed
picture of Larry Bird – a basketball player with a beak-like face and blond hair – a Tweetie’s “maybe” relative. Then comes my very favorite Tweetie line – “Well, I don’t know…we look an awful lot alike.”
The whole scene is preposterous. The great and famous Michael Jordan, who is so gifted – perhaps the most outstanding athlete of all time – this all-around nice guy – was having a conversation with Tweetie Bird – one of the biggest goofs in the Loony Tunes collection. It was funny to watch this dichotomy in action – this amazing conversation between a gifted and good and famous man who stooped to talk to Tweetie.
It was endearing too, for even though he was clearly exasperated with Tweetie Bird, Jordan was so patient as he heard Tweetie out. Tweetie, as usual, was as unruffled as he usually is with Sylvester. While we think people and birds aren’t supposed to relate to each other this way, Tweetie acts as if it happens every day.
There are those who would find it ridiculous that we claim relationship with God and believe God responds to us. Yet we – who have participated in just such a relationship – are very apt to take it as a matter of course. We forget – or at least I do – that it is quite amazing, incredible, miraculous.
And it isn’t lost on me that in some ways, the relationship between Tweetie and Jordon could be compared to mine with the Lord. The distance between us is just as great or greater. I probably come across a lot like Tweetie much of the time, while he has
the same wonderful patience with me and gives me the same gentle attention that Michael Jordan focuses on the bird.
Then as the silly commercial ended, if you look closely at that quick shot of Larry Bird, you could see this faint, faint resemblance between the two Birds – Tweetie and Larry of the same last name. These are not Birds of a feather – they are two different species of Birds. It takes a lot of faith just to consider they might be related. It shouldn’t be. It doesn’t make sense. But there they are – two blondes with beaks and the same last name. Could it be that somehow on some level they are related, connected? Stranger things have happened.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus once again uses metaphors about sheep – his sheep. He speaks of knowing – that his sheep know his voice and recognize him – that they will follow only him – that he will bring them into a kingdom of eternal life because of this knowing. If we stop to think – if we don’t take this for granted – these words are just as difficult to take in as relationship between Tweetie and Larry Bird.
These words are intimate and endearing, and yet they are also powerful. Even as they touch me and draw me in, they are electrifying too – strangely transforming and healing somehow. There is no breaking the bond between the sheep and the shepherd –
between life and eternal life. There is a family bond – we are known and protected. Safe.
It is being known that pulls me in. As I mull over these words, I begin to understand that this is something I desire and need in the deepest way. I find these words draw me back to my own childhood. They connect me somehow to all the closest relationships I have ever had. That bond brings us together in a special way too.
In the complicated and difficult world of loving each other, much depends on how deeply we are able to see into the other – to know the other – to understand the child, the parent, the beloved, the friend. It is this potential for knowing and understanding that is inherent in all relationships. This being understood – being loved and known for who we truly are – can makes us or break us – long before we are given a choice in the matter.
Many of us spend years seeking ways to settle questions left over from childhood about our value and worth – about who we are. There is something within all of us that puts a high premium on being known – even if we are terrified of it. It seems clear that knowing and being known are of enormous value to Jesus. Jesus’ words signify both acceptance and deep connections with him and among each other.
Jesus implies that this is a valuable thing – we are worth knowing. We are worth being brought into the family. We are worth being part of that connection between Jesus and the Father. This kind of unconditional acceptance is not something we experience with any great regularity. Some people go through life never knowing what it feels like. Yet we all need it and long for it. If we reach adulthood without the experience – without knowing ourselves loveable or acceptable – our lives have a bleakness that is extremely difficult to fix. This inner poverty makes it so difficult to love others.
And there are many variations on this theme. Some of us got none of the affirmation we needed. Some of got a little bit. Some got enough to live in comfort.
But even if we are one of these lucky ones, life chips away at us and our sense of ourselves. It is an almost universal experience to sometimes question our value and worth – at least sometimes. When this happens, we act as our own judge and everyone else is on jury duty. But the jury is rigged from the start. The verdict is hardly ever in our favor when this particular court is in session.
It is during these times that we feel strangely separated and different from others. Even if we make great strides in self-acceptance – the questions come up again with every rejection, every betrayal or every abandonment. We wonder if we will ever outgrow this tendency to see ourselves as less-than. And if or when we do see ourselves in this dark light, how do we square this with the information that we are made in God’s
image – that we look an awful lot alike – that we are good. We long to know this about ourselves, but it’s a real stretch sometimes.
I think the key can be found in Jesus’ knowing of us. Allowing ourselves to be known by him is what heals us. When I allow myself to be aware of my connection to the Trinity, I am a different person. I see myself in a different way. His knowing seems
to bring understanding with it. This means that I am loved without condition. The understanding always seems to mitigate the circumstances under which I would be judged by myself or others.
This means the earth to me. It does not always get me off the hook – I might still bear responsibility for my actions. But the unconditional loving is still there. And I am known in a way that I would never know myself had Jesus not shown me. We all know that incredible relief that comes when we turn to him with all the messy business of our lives and find ours hearts examined and understood.
Then the song of our souls becomes, “He knows! Oh, he knows!” There can be no change of heart without this. There can be no change at all without acceptance – Christ’s acceptance of us, ours of ourselves and our acceptance of others. Jesus, God Incarnate, the greatest realist there ever will be – knows us this way, only more. If anybody is going to know the truth about us, he will be the one.
One of the great defining moments of my life was to discover that he adored me in spite of everything he knew about me – or because of everything he knew about me. It is inexplicable – but there it is. If we can really connect with him and allow ourselves to be known – truly known – we will be loved beyond anything we can understand. We will be loved into a different species all together. We will be loved into becoming children of God. We will know our value. We will be healed, and we will be transformed.
I loved those incredible and wonderful animated films as a kid. I would stumble out of the dark theater into the late afternoon light all agog with awe, believing – hoping – that some kind of enchanted world might co-exist with ours. I felt it was just beyond my reach – a world where skunks feel in love, rabbits tapped out tunes with their feet and birds sang love songs as they tied the sash of a princess’ dress – a world where wonderful
music accompanied everything.
And I would carry some of that with me for days – hoping to catch a glimpse of it in the squirrel on the lawn or the cat on the porch. Sometimes now when the atmosphere between this world and our true home is thin, I get this same kind of feeling. I can just about see how we might all look a little bit alike.
It seems that in some magical way, Jesus gathers up all the things about us – the parts about us that drive us and everybody else to distraction – and he weaves these together with all the things about us that are wonderful and endearing – lots of things we could hardly even recognize.
He takes all the things about which we are falsely proud and – if we allow it – he subtly spins these into strands of authenticity and vulnerability – threads of humility that are like gold in the cloth. As the weaving continues, he makes sure to include all those things about us that God loves – our ability to struggle with the tensions of faith, our capacity for suffering, our endurance, our hope, our ability to love others, our steadfastness, our joy.
Now he has taught us about ourselves in a way we would never have known unless we’d allowed him these weaving privileges. We begin to understand that the way we pictured ourselves was out of focus. Now we have been loved into this subtle transformation, this new species. The garment he has woven for us – of us – heals our wounds, warms our bones and softens our suffering.
We are whole cloth now. We are known and we know. We are loved and we love. We are understood and we understand. Now we all really do look an awful lot alike. AMEN