In 1986, a man by the name of Dan Harrison was on holiday in Kenya after graduating from Northwestern University. As he went hiking one day through the bush, he came across a young bull elephant standing with one leg raised in the air. The elephant seemed distressed, so Dan approached it very carefully. He got down on one knee and inspected the elephant’s foot and found a large piece of wood deeply embedded in it. Carefully, and as gently as he could, Dan worked the wood out with his hunting knife, after which the elephant gingerly put down its foot. The elephant turned to face the man, and with a rather curious look on its face, stared at him for several tense moments. Dan stood frozen, thinking of nothing else but being trampled. Eventually the elephant trumpeted loudly, turned, and walked away. Dan never forgot that elephant or the events of that day.
HAPPY EASTER!!! This is my homily for MAY 12, 2019 – FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER . The readings for today’s Mass can be found HERE Thanks as always for reading; sharing this blog on your social media sites; and your feedback and comments. I appreciate it. Have a good week – God Bless – Fr Jim. AUDIO Also you can get the audios of the homilies from iTunes as a Podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fr-jim-cherns-homilies/id1440618142?mt=2
Twenty years later, Dan was walking through the Chicago Zoo with his teenage son. They approached a special exhibit featuring Elephants from Africa, and as they did, one of the creatures turned and walked over to near where Dan and his son Dan Jr. were standing. The large bull elephant stared at Dan, lifted its front foot off the ground, and then put it down. A few moments later, he did it again, lifted his one foot up and putting it down, all the while staring at the man.
Remembering the encounter in 1986, Dan couldn’t help wondering if this was the same elephant. Dan summoned up his courage, climbed over the railing and made his way into the enclosure. He walked right up to the elephant and stared back in wonder. The elephant trumpeted again, gently wrapped its trunk around one of Dan’s legs and then slammed him against the railing, killing him instantly.
Probably wasn’t the same elephant.
Terrible joke – but an important point. How do we recognize a friend from a foe? How do we tell the difference between someone who loves us and someone who wants to simply use us? How do we determine, from the many voices we encounter on a regular basis, who to listen to, who to follow?
Every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, we hear a Gospel where Jesus is presented to us as the Good Shepherd. And a key point to today’s passage is Jesus speaking very simply and directly – “My sheep hear my voice – I know them, and they follow me…” The full impact of that doesn’t always register because few of us have had experience with sheep or shepherds for that matter. Sheep have a profound connection with their shepherd. The Shepherd recognizes, knows every one of his sheep – the one with the strange looking ear, that one with the cute face – the other one who’s bigger and fuller than the rest- He knows all of them – he can tell when one out of 100 of them are missing. At night, during Jesus’ time, there would be three or four shepherds who’d put all of their sheep together in a pen and they would alternate at night who would watch all of them, protecting them from thieves, or wild animals. In the morning, the shepherds would call, and the flocks would split and follow their respective shepherd. They recognize the voice of their shepherd and they follow Him. They know their shepherd will care for them, protect them. They trust Him.
So Jesus using this image to talk about Himself and our relationship with Him is amazingly beautiful and profound. Because what is He saying? We are known. We are counted. We are cared for. We are loved.
Part of the problem, beyond our lack of understanding of sheep and shepherds is that I’m not sure that all of us are completely convinced of that. In the book entitled Tattoos on the Heart Fr. Gregory Boyle reflects on his ministry of reaching out to men and women who’ve been immersed in the gang culture. He put it this way that really leveled me the other night. He said so often that we say that ‘God loves us’ and “yet there is this lurking sense that perhaps you aren’t fully part of the ‘us.’ The arms of God reach to embrace, and somehow you feel yourself just outside God’s fingertips. Then you have no choice but to consider that ‘God loves me,’ yet you spend much of your life unable to shake off what feels like God only embracing you begrudgingly and reluctantly.”
How many of us struggle with thoughts like that? We don’t believe that God is fully, madly, relentlessly in love with us. We find it inconceivable that God is willing to go to the cross to wipe out our sins. We think it’s too good to be true that God empties himself of his immensity and wants to meet us in our lowliness. We don’t recognize how God has stepped down and wants to care for us, protect us, lead and guide us, shepherd us. When those realities are hard for us to believe then it’s hard for us to be the sheep… It’s difficult to listen to his voice and follow him. And then we end up tempted by other voices: Like the voice of a materialistic world that tells us to make as much money as we can, as fast as we can – that we need things, lots and lots of things in order to be happy. Or the voice of the media with distorted images that make us obsessed with beauty and youth. Or the Evil voices out there, too, that call us to selfishness, self-centeredness and hatred. All of these become hard to resist. And then we find ourselves mistaking comfort for fulfillment; glamour for beauty. Foolishly embracing these and many other destructive things that look kind of appealing, kind of familiar in a way that slowly wrapping themselves around us ready to smash us, and destroy us – a devil in elephants clothing if you will.
For those of us struggling to believe, struggling to trust, struggling to recognize the depth of love that God has for us…. For those who have been led astray by other voices and find ourselves in a place where we don’t want to be – consumed by petty hatreds or fears; weighed down by sins – we can take comfort that Jesus, doesn’t ever give up on us. “I know them” he says – so He knows the struggles, He sees our set backs and failures; our thick headedness; our doubts and disbelief. But He can’t stop looking for us because he tells us that He has come to “give them eternal life” “No one can take them out of my hand…” He’s calling out to every one of us to see his outstretched hand; hear his loving voice and recognize He is truly the Good Shepherd. May we have the humility and the courage to follow.