Reach Out As Jesus Did

I couldn’t help laughing during Mass a few weeks ago. We’d just returned from our second visit to Israel. My husband-the-deacon was preaching that day and he began his homily with a story about our older son’s response to our first Israel trip. When we shared our plans for that venture, our son turned to me with something between a grimace and a smile and announced, “Well, Mom, it’s been a good run.” Though I assured our firstborn that I’d never travel to an unsafe destination, I sensed that he was at least a little worried about his dad and me. The image of his feigned smile stayed with me until we arrived in Israel last year and found ourselves to be completely outside of harm’s way. Our Israeli guide and our Palestinian bus driver joined our tour director Nancy in seeing to our worry-free travel the entire time. This year’s adventure proved to be equally secure and enjoyable. After sharing all of this, Mike went on to the point of his homily. I missed the bulk of the poor man’s message because my mind drifted back to Israel. I couldn’t shake the notion that Jesus’ homeland hasn’t changed much since our first visit there. I also think that it hasn’t changed much since Jesus lived there.

Though Israel’s politics sometimes suggests otherwise, the variety of people who make up that nation’s diverse population cooperate on many levels every day. They do their best to secure peaceful and productive lives for themselves and for their families. Our guide Yossi often commented, “All they want is to work and provide a home and food and a life for their children. This is what we all want.” Yossi certainly supports this effort through his work as he guided us to an Italian mission, an Orthodox Jewish home, a tourist stop in Jericho, the Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places, the Israeli Museum, Muslim shops, Palestinian restaurants and so much more. I’ve shared before that Yossi is a gifted musician. When he treated us to his selections in these venues, he included the best of his own Israeli pieces, Christian classics and the favorites of those who hosted us. Each of these encounters spoke to the people’s successful efforts to co-exist on the job, in their neighborhoods and as friends. How could my thoughts not turn to Jesus efforts in the midst of all of this?

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scripture readings speak to Jesus’ efforts, Yossi’s efforts and all of our efforts when we try to build community in our little corners of the world. In the first reading from Exodus (17:3-7), Moses deals with the grumbling Israelites who seem to have forgotten that they were led from the grips of slavery in Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land. They complained incessantly throughout this journey and threatened Moses at the time due to the bitterness of the water at hand. With disgust and fear, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of the people’s complete lack of faith, God provided the water they craved. In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings which flowed like water from Jesus. Paul went on to tell them to find further sustenance in one another. Paul assured them that, all the while, God remained with them.

It is the passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) which gets to the heart of what I discovered while among the people of Israel. John tells us of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria as he rested at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman by asking her for a drink of water. At the time, the Jewish People avoided association with Samaritans at all costs. Jesus’ request for water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more in return than a sip of water merited. When this woman ignored societal barriers and acknowledged Jesus, her life changed forever. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or seventh chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply accepted her as she was and asked that she open her heart to something more. In the end, this conversation touched the woman so deeply that she couldn’t help spreading Jesus’ good news throughout her town. As it happened, many turned to Jesus that day because the woman from Samaria shared her good fortune indiscriminately with them all.

I never expected my visits to Israel to reveal so much of Jesus’ life and message to me. I would never have guessed that the efforts of Palestinians and Jews, Muslims and Arabs, Christians and agnostics of every sort to live and work together would so clearly mirror Jesus’ work among his contemporaries. Though national politics sometimes gets in the way, Israel’s people work diligently to build community among themselves. It seems to me that Jesus asked the woman from Samaria to do the same. When she opened her heart to this Jewish Teacher’s message of love and mercy, the woman couldn’t help doing good in response. This Lent 2018, you and I are invited to open our hearts and to do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Rocky Roads and Plush Paths

When we visited Israel a few weeks ago, we visited Megiddo National Park on our first tour day. This place has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with good reason. It served as a strategic land route and stronghold long before biblical times. As a result, Megiddo’s history includes an ongoing series of battles for its control. Modern day archaeological digs have revealed thirty layers of ruins which illustrate the remarkable fortifications which protected this place, complex water systems and the lavish lifestyles of those who occupied it. Perhaps it is no wonder that this place is also known as Armageddon where many Christians believe the final battle between good and evil at the end of the world will occur. There certainly has been enough strife there to set the tone! Still, as I looked over the area, I prayed that this won’t be the case. For me, Megiddo is a beautiful illustration of life on this earth and there is much to be learned from its geography and its people.

I lost sight of Megiddo’s troubled history as I gazed across the seemingly endless expanse of ruins and rocks before me. Though these images spoke to several millenniums of hardship, the palm trees and other green plants which poked their way upward and out of the rocky terrain suggested hope to me. When I looked further to unexpectedly wide and verdant pastures of green nestled between those rocky expanses, I realized that I’d encountered hope-fulfilled. The thousands of generations who occupied this area so long ago knew the value of what they’d found. They realized the promise this location offered and happily invested the hard work which made this place a prosperous home for them. Those fortresses, waterways and palaces served them well. Unfortunately, as is too often the case with us humans, the prospect of sharing this wonderful place was incomprehensible and, time after time, war raged until each subsequent victor called this place home.

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scripture readings invite us to assess the rocky ways and plush expanses which lie before us. As is always the case, God leaves it up to us to choose what we will do with what we find. The first reading from Exodus (17:3-7) tells us that God’s people didn’t do well in this regard. Moses had led them from the grips of slavery in Egypt and was taking them on to the Promised Land. Still, they complained incessantly. Rather than trusting God and perhaps doing a little more to help themselves, they threatened Moses. In fear and disgust, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of their disrespect and complete lack of faith, God provided water that they might live.

In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings that had come with Christ’s death. Their lives lay in the blood and water which flowed from Christ’s side on the cross. Paul went on to tell them to find further sustenance in one another. All the while, Paul assured them that God remained to nourish and to revive them. They needed only to look in God’s direction.

As I gazed over the stark contrasts in Megiddo that day, I couldn’t help seeing the vibrant patches of hope which sustain us as we walk the rocky roads which punctuate our lives. Today’s passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) gets to the heart of what I discovered. John tells us of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria as he rests at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman with a request for water. Jews avoided association with Samaritans at all costs. Sharing a drink of water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more than a simple drink in return. If she acknowledged what was before her, the woman would experience life anew. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or seventh chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture to this woman regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply asked that she open herself to hope in something far better for herself. In the end, this simple conversation quenched the woman’s thirst so completely that she spread Jesus’ good news throughout her town. Many turned to Jesus that day because the Samaritan Woman led them beyond their own rocky roads to the green expanses she’d found through Jesus.

I never expected a visit to Armageddon to inspire me with such hope. Though this site has been tainted with thousands of years of bloodshed, it has also been blessed with the hope of innumerable generations who appreciated its potential. You and I suffer just as the Samaritan woman did. More importantly, like her, you and I have also caught God’s eye. God’s offer of a new beginning stands for us as well, today and always!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Patient and Nurturing Love

While baby-sitting for our little grandson, Grandpa and I noticed the lovely flower resting on a table in the living room. After putting Danny to bed for a nap and bidding Grandpa farewell as he headed out to run errands, I decided to enjoy a bit of respite. Though I normally retreat to the family room with a book in hand, I felt the need to spend time in the presence of that beautiful plant. Some years ago, it was an equally compelling blossom which taught me an unforgettable lesson about God’s persistent care and God’s faith in our potential to accomplish the spectacular…

It was a few weeks before Christmas when I made my annual purchase of a Christmas Amaryllis potting kit. Each year, after my husband planted and watered the bulb, I kept watch until the bulb produced an amazing blossom. These blooms always appeared just in time to add a flourish to our Yuletide decor. One year, after I made this purchase, I left the boxed bulb and pot in the garage because we were in the midst of decorating for Christmas. I planned to retrieve the kit when we were ready to plant. Unfortunately, in our decorating frenzy, several items in the garage were rearranged and the kit was inadvertently buried. I rediscovered it two months later while looking for something else. Because Mike knows far more about plants and their care than I do, I brought the kit into the house and asked if we should bother planting it. Mike reminded me of the year we were given an Easter Amaryllis and went on to say, “Maybe it was just a Christmas Amaryllis that someone re-gifted. Let’s see what happens.”

Because Mike was too busy to deal with the plant for a few days, I decided to help in this effort. I remember convincing myself that I could take on this minimal gardening task as I opened the box. When I found the pot, a very large bulb and a little mud-like disk about the size of a hockey puck, I was disappointed. Whoever had put this kit together had forgotten the potting soil. The list of enclosed items included potting medium and I had none. Determined, I headed to the garage to look for potting soil. After a fruitless search, I was tempted to abandon this project. However, I was on a mission. I looked at the box to see if the type of soil was noted so I could purchase it. As I reread, I discovered that the disk I mistakenly called fertilizer was actually freeze-dried soil which would expand to fill the pot. I hit my forehead and murmured “Duh!” as I returned to planting. I placed the “soil” in the pot and added water. I set the bulb in the expanding soil and held it in place as I added more water. The soil covered it by half as it made its way to the rim. I placed the pot by the kitchen window and cleaned up my mess. That night, after I checked the bulb to be certain it hadn’t fallen over, I went to bed with a contented smile.

Though Mike is the resident gardener, I dutifully checked that Amaryllis bulb every morning and after work each day. I also informed him that I would keep the soil moist to the touch. Within a few days, a bit of green stem rewarded my effort. Every day afterward, I encouraged that stem to grow upright. One day, I noticed the bud at the top of the stem. I’ll never forget catching my first glimpse of the red and white blossom which give this particular Amaryllis its name. While sitting with that inspiring flower in my grandson’s living room, it occurred to me that my planting adventure had actually brought one of Jesus’ most beloved parables to life.

My persistent care of that once-troublesome bulb mirrors God’s care for us in spite of the troubles we cause one another and ourselves. When God asks us to acknowledge our missteps and our sins, God also promises to nurture us through our attempts to set things right again and to grow from our mistakes. In today’s gospel (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus illustrates God’s persistent care for and faith in us with the parable of the unproductive fig tree. After chastising the people for once again missing the point of his words, Jesus offered his story. He told the crowd that an orchard owner grew impatient with a fig tree which had not yielded fruit for three years. The man ordered his gardener to cut down the tree so it wouldn’t drain the soil of nutrients. The gardener pleaded with his employer to allow him just one more year to cultivate the tree. If after a year of careful attention the tree failed to bear fruit, the gardener promised to cut it down. The orchard owner placed his faith in that gardener and spared the tree.

Just the same, God leaves us in Jesus’ hands to be pruned and nourished. Much to our good fortune, Jesus spent what remained of his life among us transforming us through his love and his example. With complete faith in our ability to respond, God patiently waits for the spectacular blossoms which will come to life in you and in me.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved