We’re Shepherds All!

When I heard familiar voices outside, I grabbed my hoodie and headed to the front door. Neighbors had been marooned out of town since the onset of our stay-at-home attempts to control the Corona Virus. They’d finally made it home and were wearily, but happily unpacking their car. I yelled from across the lawn to welcome them back to the neighborhood. My neighbor Kathy had come out to do the same. In the midst of it all, she looked in my direction to say, “You know, I don’t know what day it is any more. Since we can’t go to church, I’ve lost my bearings. Sunday used to be my anchor day. Now, I don’t know. It’s tough.” At first, I was surprised by Kathy’s comment. Because I’ve continued to post on my blog every day, I’ve adhered to a schedule of sorts. The writing, the online liturgies streamed from so many of our churches, as well as my ongoing conversation with our patient God have apparently kept me more grounded than I realized.

After bidding my neighbors farewell, I returned to my keyboard to begin this writing. When I reread today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 10:1-10), I recalled that Jesus’ contemporaries had lost their bearings as well. They had also lost access to the anchor which should have kept them grounded. This passage tells us that Jesus was angry as he spoke on that particular day because his troubled neighbors had no one to turn to in their suffering. They should have been able to go to the temple to pray for consolation and to seek counsel from the priests and scribes there. The people should have found comfort simply by being in that holy place. Rather, the Pharisees had manipulated The Law to own their benefit. They had imposed rules of every sort which limited the people’s access to their worship space, to the temple staff and to God. The virus which threatened in Jesus’ day had replaced compassion with control and had denied God’s comfort to those who needed it most.

Jesus responded to the situation by calling those who truly wished to serve the people to emulate shepherds. Though the temple authorities looked down upon shepherds because their jobs prevented them from adhering to the letter of The Law, Jesus held up shepherds as ideal examples of leadership, caring and love. The shepherds of Jesus’ day spent long hours in fields with their herds. Though they lacked education and power of any sort, they were key to the prosperity of wealthy sheep owners. Jesus reminded the people that shepherds dutifully guarded and nurtured the sheep in their charge. Every sheep knew its keeper’s voice, keenly aware of the special call only he could produce to beckon it to his side. When it came time to be led in or out of the pasture, each sheep followed the voice it had come to know and to trust. Whether a flock numbered in the hundreds or could be counted on the fingers of one hand, the shepherd’s guidance was essential to each animal’s survival. Jesus expected no less of those entrusted with God’s people. Jesus lost his patience in the temple that day because the Pharisees and their company had lost sight of their mission to anchor God’s people by lovingly shepherding them.

I think my neighbor felt that she’d lost her bearings because she thought she had lost access to the anchor she’d found at her parish church. It occurs to me that, without realizing it, Kathy has become the anchor she longed for. She listened compassionately as our friends described their lengthy isolation in cramped quarters. In the midst of admirable social distancing, Kathy and her husband provided refreshments since the returning couple was greeted by both an empty house and an empty refrigerator. Kathy had certainly provided the welcome which Jesus expected the temple staff to provide two millenniums ago. What a great example of shepherding Kathy was!

It seems that Easter Season 2020 will continue to be filled with moments of uncertainty and solitude for us all. The good news is that we will endure these difficult times in very good company. Our Good Shepherd reassures us all that none of us suffer alone. Kathy felt that she’d lost her anchor because it has come to her in a different form these days. Rather than finding solace and peace in the church building and the people whom she’s come to love there, Kathy has become the anchor where those things abide for others. In the rare event that she falters in her new role, Jesus will lift her up onto his shoulders and carry her through. You and I are invited to be anchors for one another as well. If you’re wondering how you might proceed, think of Kathy’s kindness and respond as she did to those you’ve been given to love. However we support our loved ones though this COVID-19 ordeal, as he does for my dear neighbor, Jesus will be with us to shepherd us every step of the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy Week… Monday

And when he entered Jerusalem
the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”

Matthew 21:10

While in Israel, our arrival in Jerusalem startled me a bit. This first stop on our tour was at least as frenetic as downtown Chicago on Black Friday. Though all of the places on our itinerary were well-populated, the crowds in Jerusalem rushed in every direction for as far as I could see. It occurred to me that Jesus’ contemporaries felt the same every year as Passover approached. Devout Jewish people filled the holy city to observe this solemn feast. It was Friday when we toured Jerusalem. Sabbath would begin at sunset which prompted the frenzy in the markets. Everyone rushed to complete their errands before the shops closed a few hours later.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that Sunday so long ago, I imagine he was anxious as well. It wasn’t the shopping which concerned Jesus that day. It was we who were on his mind. He had worked tirelessly to reveal God’s loving and compassionate ways. Still, many remained who didn’t understand. Sadly, I don’t always behave as though I understand. As I looked into those crowds in Jerusalem that day, I wondered if they appreciated the thinking behind their Sabbath preparations. When I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window, I wondered if I appreciated the thinking behind what Jesus had done for me.

It seems to me that it’s more important than ever to focus upon all that God has done for us. The gifts of this earth, of one another and our very lives seem more precious than ever. After tending to our loved ones with whom we’re sharing close quarters these days, we might turn our eyes upward and tend to that Ever-present Loved One who remains with us through it all.

Dear God, thank you for loving me through today’s troubles and through whatever lies ahead. I love you, too.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Mary of Magdala

The Twelve, Mary called the Magdalene…
and many others accompanied him.

From Luke 8:2-3

I’ve been a fan of Mary Magdalene since childhood. I am the offspring of a strong woman who endured her share of troubles, yet embraced this life as only she could. In spite of the uncertainties which lay before her much of the time, my mother consistently put her best foot forward and carried on. When I first learned of Mary Magdalene, I imagined her with my mother’s strength and seeming fearlessness.

Though I was very young, I understood the difficulties faced by women who go it alone. Mary Magdalene was a woman of means, but she suffered from a serious malady. Jewish people of the First Century considered such conditions to be the result of possession by demons or of serious sinfulness. Either way, there wasn’t much sympathy to be had from others. Still, Mary managed to maintain her position and her wealth. When she and Jesus met, Mary’s cure resulted. Eternally grateful for this turn of events and smitten by Jesus’ message, Mary soon began to support Jesus in his ministry.

I recall my mother in “provider mode” as she eked out grocery money and fashioned much of our clothing by sewing new things or re-styling the old. She relentlessly searched for our shoes and other necessities on sale. I see Mary Magdalene in “provider mode” as well. She skillfully tended to the practicalities of Jesus’ ministry such as food. At the same time, she carefully attended to Jesus’ every word. Jesus knew that Mary Magdalene loved him very much. This was obvious in everything she did for him.

We all need to be reminded that we are loved at one time or another. Today, as we continue our trek through life with COVID-19, let’s remind those we’re caring for and keeping safe that we’re doing all of this because we love them. Did you read that, dear ones? I love you!

Dear God, you entrusted Jesus to share your love for us through everything he said and did. Help me to bring your love and my own to those who share this difficult time with me.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Peacemakers All…

Blessed are the peacemakers;
you shall be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

While in Israel, I was amazed by the circumstances of its people and its property. Israel occupies a large portion of what we consider to be the Holy Land. Interestingly enough, the holiest places within its borders are controlled by various entities including Muslims, Christians and Jews. Our guide is an Israeli citizen who respects his countrymen whatever their beliefs. He speaks Hebrew, Arabic and Italian (among other languages). As a result, he gained us access to sites where others are denied entry. Whenever this occurred, Yossi didn’t revel in his success. He simply pointed out that being respectful of the ways of others and meeting others on their own turf or terms usually leads to peaceful encounters which benefit all concerned. “This is the way to peace,” Yossi would say.

Perhaps this is the reason Yossi exhibited some impatience with his Hasidic Jewish neighbors. I was surprised to learn that they make up only ten percent of Israel’s population. Most of this sect live in their own neighborhoods where they adhere to the strictest code of conduct. Our guide also surprised me when he shared that eighty percent of the population is non-religious. It seemed to trouble Yossi to acknowledged that the holiest place on earth is home to so many non-religious people. Yossi shared that the strict rules and intolerance of a few had soured many Israelis’ views of organized religion.

As I pondered all of this, I considered the “secular” Jewish people who shared the path with us during our stay. Though they didn’t profess a religious affiliation, they did work toward change through their interactions with neighbors of multiple ethnicities. I wondered if they realized that they were peacemakers just like Yossi.

Loving God, help us all to work toward peace with loving hands and loving hearts.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Real Life Lessons

When he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside.
After he sat down, the disciples gathered around him…

Matthew 5:1

Even from afar, the Mount of the Beatitudes exudes beauty. This deceptively peaceful setting is also known as Mount Eremos. Its name is derived from Greek and means “solitary or uninhabited”. I laugh as I type this fact as the opposite must have been true of this place the day Jesus offered his hope-filled lessons in living.

While Matthew placed Jesus on a mountainside for this discourse, Luke described the site as a level place. A close look clears up this discrepancy as there are numerous level places on the hillsides of Galilee. Jesus could have delivered his sermon from any one of them. More important is the value of Jesus’ teaching that day. Matthew’s indication that Jesus sat before he began mustn’t be overlooked. Those who taught in the temple always sat before offering their lessons. Jesus made a point when he followed suit. Once again, it was quite clear that Jesus taught with authority.

As for me, I’ve found myself weary of the empty words of an assortment “authority figures” throughout my life. What a life-giving experience it was when my parents and a favorite teacher and a respected public figure and my priest asked no more of me than they asked of themselves! This is precisely the experience of those who heard Jesus that day. This was their experience every time Jesus opened his mouth because Jesus’ actions always spoke louder than his words.

Loving God, thank you for sending an authentic representative to share your loving ways with us.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Love, Even When It’s Dangerous

“If I do not perform God’s works, do not believe me;
but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works.”

John 10:38

In spite of everything, I keep my propensity to trust in the goodness of humankind intact. Yes, I realize that there are evildoers among us. The recent bloodshed in El Paso and Dayton provided proof enough for a lifetime. At the same time, I also believe that unsuspecting heroes of every sort have and will continue to rise in the midst of these and multitudes of other tragedies. In similar circumstances, most of us would do the same. So it is that I persist in trusting those I meet along the way until they give me reason not to do so.

Jesus wasn’t at all gullible. He lived in times which rival our own when it comes to our inhumanity toward one another. Jesus knew that some who professed to be religious leaders questioned his motives and the authenticity of his message. Blinded by hatred, this threat to their power over the people was more than they could tolerate. When Jesus assisted the neediest and most marginalized of the people, these kindnesses only added to the angst of the temple hierarchy. They were more angry over Jesus’ association with these allegedly unclean souls than with Jesus’ claim to be God’s son.

In the end, Jesus continued to deliver God’s message of love, forgiveness, inclusion and mercy. Jesus knew that when his enemies saw to his demise, they also ensured his travel home to heaven. Whenever we stand up to the forces of evil in defense of others, we’re ensured of the same.

Loving God, help us to open our hearts generously on behalf of those you have given us to love even when it’s frightening to do so.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved