Good Reason To Love

Caiaphas said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider
that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”

John 11:50

This is not my favorite scripture passage. Caiaphas sends a chill down my spine. He’s speaking about Jesus, the Good Shepherd who would leave his entire flock to find one lost sheep. He’s speaking about the Father of the Prodigal Son who gave that young man half his wealth, watched him squander it and then welcomed him home. Caiaphas mustn’t have heard the parable about the pearl of great price for which a man sold everything. He must have missed the tale of the woman who swept up and dusted her house again and again until she found her precious coin. Poor Caiaphas seems to have missed everything of importance that Jesus said because he’s blinded and deafened by his desire to maintain his own stature and to remain in power.

You know, there are many people near and far who are distracted by their troubles as well. Though some have lost their perspective through selfishness much like Caiaphas, most suffer distractions wielded upon them by the unexplained and/or deliberate injustices of our human existence. Perhaps Caiaphas’ callousness serves as a reminder that many of our fellow humans have little about which to rejoice today. Perhaps Caiaphas’ hatred of Jesus encourages us to love as Caiaphas could not love. Perhaps Caiaphas’ influence finally changes its direction because it inspires us to care for those who need us most.

Good and Gracious God, thank you for using even our weaknesses to teach us to love.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Respond As Best We Can

When my husband and I traveled to Israel in mid-February, I didn’t realize that this trip would be the perfect preparation for Lent 2017. Every Lent, I do my best to revisit all that Jesus means to me. Like many who claim to live as Jesus lived, I often find myself falling short. While in Israel, I acquired much insight regarding life in Jesus’ day and in modern-day Israel. I discovered that I’m not alone in my human frailty.

Our guide Yossi consistently followed his commentaries regarding the sites we visited with anecdotes from Israeli life today. Each of Yossi’s stories betrayed his love for his people and his concern regarding their too-frequent inability to live peacefully with one another. Some who feel strongly regarding the old ways do their best to draw others to imitate their piety. Some have lost patience with these religious people and they respond by forsaking their faith and embracing more secular ways. Some have found Jesus to be their messiah and suffer isolation from intolerant neighbors. The various ethic quarters throughout Jerusalem and elsewhere greatly enrich Israeli life while sometimes adding to the discord. Because Israel is surrounded by its enemies, Yossi feels strongly that peace is a necessity within its borders. Yossi always ended his remarks with this request: “You must pray for Israel’s people, that we live in peace with one another.” Yossi always accompanied this request with his own attempts to build peace among his neighbors, just as Jesus did. Every time Yossi shared these things, I imagined Jesus shaking his head and responding with his own efforts in this regard.

It occurs to me that the unrest which sometimes plagues the people of Israel also plagues us in this country. It follows us into our workplaces, neighborhoods and schools and even into our own homes. Today’s gospel tells us that Thomas’ experienced the same…

After Jesus’ crucifixion, the once-scattered disciples huddled together for safety. By that time, Judas had hung himself in despair over having betrayed Jesus. Close as he was to our precious Lord, Judas didn’t realize that Jesus’ talk of mercy, forgiveness and love was meant for him as well. Had he made his way to the foot of the cross, I’m certain Jesus would have told him so. Had he made his way to that locked room, I can only hope that the others would have allowed him in. After all, they’d all deserted Jesus when the guards came to arrest him. Though Peter pulled out his sword in Jesus’ defense, he later denied Jesus three times. Only John eventually approached the cross where Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene and the other women stood in horror. The disciples’ fear intensified as they worried with good reason about their own eventual demise.

In spite of this collective fear, John’s gospel (20:19-31) tells us that Thomas left their hideout. Did he hope to learn for himself what the people were saying about Jesus’ death? Did he discover that the discord among the scribes and Pharisees continued as a few had expressed sympathy toward Jesus? Did Thomas hear rumblings from Pilate’s palace where his wife had warned him not to harm Jesus? Did he hear of uncertainly among the soldiers who crucified Jesus? One of their own had fallen to his knees before the cross to proclaim that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. After Jesus’ death, there was unrest among the people and in disciples’ hideout just as there is in Israel and just as there is among us. Thomas’s absence during Jesus first appearance only added to this unrest. Jesus returned a week later when Thomas was present. Jesus greeted them with, “Peace be with you!” Still, poor Thomas bore the brunt of all of our doubt and fear when Jesus added, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving.” When Thomas fell at Jesus’ feet, Jesus replied, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?” Jesus could have looked around at the others and at each one of us to ask the same.

You know, Jesus revealed God’s love in everything he said and did. Jesus revealed God’s forgiving mercy through every interaction with those he met along the way. Rumblings of uncertainty and discontent surrounded Jesus. They surrounded his closest friends as well. Why then was I surprised by Yossi’s experience in Israel? Why am I surprised by my own experiences? These things come with being human. Fortunately, two far more precious aspects of our humanity come as well: Our ability to make peace with one another and our ability to love, just as Jesus did, as best we can.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Hearts On Fire!

“Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked
to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?”

From Luke 24:32

Because my husband diligently chronicled our trip to Israel, he took it upon himself to order and then organize hard-copies of his photographs. Afterward, he asked me to check his work. In the end, he purchased an album for us to display his handiwork. We realize that this is the digital age and that we can enjoy our memories in full color on our laptop. Still, having them in hand where we can linger over each one is a luxury we’re not ready to give up. We keep our photo albums on the coffee table in our family room. This prompts visitors and us to enjoy them often. There’s no easier way to acknowledge our blessings on a regular basis.

Luke’s gospel tells us that Cleopas and his companion were confused by the stranger whom they met on the road to Emmaus. They had just left Jerusalem where Jesus had been crucified. It seemed everyone they knew was affected in some way by this tragedy, yet this man seemed to know nothing of it. Finally, when this stranger conjured up their memory of the breaking of the bread, they realized he was Jesus. This precious memory clarified everything!

The time I spent in Israel enriched me beyond words. Every time I open that album, another precious memory enhances the moment at hand. As was the case for those fellows who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, my heart continues to burn within me.

Loving God, help me never to forget the wonder of your presence in my life.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

What Now?

Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb.
He stooped down but could see nothing but the wrappings.
So he went away full of amazement at what had occurred.

Luke 24:12

Our last hours in Israel flew by. Though we’d spent the day plodding through truly holy land, by evening, we sat in a restaurant filled with Saturday night diners. While we enjoyed the tempting aromas inside, just outside, couples filled an elevated platform for a dance contest. Throughout our tour, busy Israelis often moved among and around us as they tended to their daily routines. That evening, they engaged in some well-deserved leisure on the eve of another workweek. Each one was rightfully oblivious to the amazing journey my fellow travelers and I had just completed.

Jerusalem was a bustling metropolis in Jesus’ day as well, especially during Passover. Devout people flocked there to observe this sacred feast in the temple. Faithful as they were, many of them didn’t acknowledge Jesus’ crucifixion. Though some had met Jesus and even marveled at his words, many others were oblivious to the itinerant teacher who had somehow managed to get himself crucified. Yet, in spite of these mixed reviews, Jesus’ words and works remain in the hearts of more than two billion people who consider themselves Christians today. Even some who profess no faith regard Jesus’ example as revolutionary and inspiring.

When Peter discovered those burial cloths in Jesus’ tomb, I imagine he vacillated between feelings of awe and ambivalence. Though thrilled at the possibility that Jesus had actually risen, how could Peter not ask himself, “What now?” As we know, Peter answered that question for himself and for us in the days that followed.

Patient God, when I ask myself, “What now?” be with me as I sort through my own ambivalence and fear and awe.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Easter Blessings

When I turned to John’s gospel (John 20:1-9) in preparation for this writing, my eyes filled up as I read: On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark… “Of course she did,” I told myself. A lifetime of devotion prompted this remark regarding Mary Magdalene’s behavior that first Easter morning. When my husband and I considered a possible trip to Israel, it was Magdala’s place on the itinerary which compelled me to embrace this opportunity. I couldn’t imagine a better way to become more closely acquainted with my childhood hero.

In Israel, when we disembarked from our bus in Magdala, I wasn’t disappointed. I quickly learned that this little town boasted an excellent economy in Jesus’ day. The booming fishing industry paved the way for a variety of merchants and artisans who occupied numerous shops in the marketplace. Nearby homes rested along streets arranged in grid-like fashion much like our own. Magdala’s close proximity to Nazareth likely enticed Jesus to begin his ministry there. I couldn’t hide my amazement as I looked upon the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus frequently taught. Perhaps Mary Magdalene had met Jesus there.

Scripture scholars tell us that Mary Magdalene was a woman of means who suffered from a serious illness. At the time, such afflictions were assumed to be caused by the sinfulness of their victims or by demons. That Mary maintained her stature and wealth in the midst of her suffering is a testament to her strong character. Though we don’t know the circumstances, Mary and Jesus met in Magdala and Jesus cured her. Perhaps Mary had heard enough about Jesus to lay her troubles at his feet and to trust in his intervention. Perhaps Jesus sought out the suffering Mary just as he sought out those in pain throughout his ministry. Whatever the circumstances, this encounter resulted in a lifelong friendship and Mary’s deep faith in Jesus. Mary responded by immersing herself in Jesus’ work and investing her resources in providing for Jesus’ and his disciples’ material needs.

I share all of this today because I think it was fitting that Mary Magdalene approached Jesus’ tomb so early that first Easter morning. The families of those who died visited their loved ones’ tombs three days after burial and, to Mary, Jesus was family. My visit to Magdala increased my understanding of this remarkable relationship. This encounter also revealed Mary Magdalene’s deep connection to us. Scriptures scholars call Mary an avid believer and perhaps Jesus’ closest follower. Mary Magdalene didn’t become a woman of means by hiding in the shadows. Mary’s bravery and devotion impelled her to do everything she did, including remaining with Jesus when rumblings of discontent filled the air around him. Our subsequent visit to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and a nearby church put everything into perspective for me. That room where Jesus ate his last supper induced a smile over all that Jesus had shared there. It also prompted my tears as I recalled all that followed. The nearby church featured a life-size sculpture of The Last Supper. Because this image drew me in, it took a moment for me to see the lone figure nestled in the shadows a few feet away. Mary Magdalene stood silently as Jesus extended his greatest gift to his unwitting disciples, to her and to us all.

This Easter morning, I find great hope for us in Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus. I think Mary would tell us that she was as flawed as the rest of us when she walked with Jesus. Still, Jesus loved her. It was this love which gave Mary the strength to remain with Jesus throughout his ministry and as he endured those long hours on the cross. Whenever you and I ignore the rumblings around us and set aside our own troubles to care for others, we do what Mary Magdalene did for Jesus. At the same time, Jesus does the same for us. Jesus brings us strength and his assurance that we are never alone.

My experience in Israel enriched my relationship with Mary Magdalene. More importantly, it nurtured my love for Jesus. With every step, I embraced Jesus’ path more fully. With every step, Jesus embraced me with the same friendship and love he offered his friend Mary so long ago. The compassion and unconditional love Mary Magdalene enjoyed two millenniums ago are yours as well, today and always. What better reason is there for us all to enjoy a most happy and blessed Easter?

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy Saturday

“Why do you search for the living one among the dead?
He is not here; he has been raised up.”

From Luke 24:5-6

It was Saturday, our last day in Israel, when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. Though I hadn’t thought of this beforehand, this timing was absolutely perfect! I was secretly proud of my husband and me because we’d endured the walking, climbing and other rigors of our tour quite well. I was especially pleased because none of these “externals” had distracted me from the amazingly spiritual experience this trip had proven to be. I had many good reasons to rejoice when we visited that beautiful church on this Sabbath afternoon.

Though archaeologists aren’t certain that this church houses either Jesus’ tomb or the place Jesus was crucified, this didn’t matter to me. Simply being in the vicinity of these events was enough. In one way or another, I had crossed Jesus’ path as he dragged himself to the place of his crucifixion. On this wonderful Saturday, I also walked near the place where Joseph of Arimathea had given his tomb for Jesus’ burial. As I considered these events, it occurred to me that though Jesus’ body lay wrapped from Friday till Sunday morning, Jesus himself was busy celebrating with his Abba over our good fortune. We would all soon realize that the end of this life isn’t the end after all!

Loving God, only you can draw such amazing good from even the worst of our evil-doing. Amen! Alleluia!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved