Mercy, Me!

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Mercy, Me!” 1 Tim. 1:12-17

Oren Kalisman grew up with Muslim neighbors he never met.  In fact, as a Jewish child growing up in the Galilee, Oren’s only childhood memory of interacting with a Muslim neighbor was when his mother stopped to give a ride to an old man, hitchhiking on the road to the next village.  At eighteen, Oren, like his parents before him, began compulsory military service with the Israeli Defense Forces. He was selected for an elite squad of paratroopers with twenty soldiers under his command.

When the second intifada began in 2000, Oren and his unit were deployed outside a refugee camp. There they used snipers to pick off alarmed Palestinians who emerged to defend their homes with rocks and Molotov cocktails.  In 2002, a solo Palestinian attack at an Israeli checkpoint killed six Jewish soldiers.  Orders came from Oren’s commanding officers: the Muslim policemen manning Palestinian check points in the West Bank were to be killed in retaliation.  Fifteen officers were executed.

Oren justified the violence that he and his men perpetrated. If someone was throwing a Molotov cocktail at you, they should be killed.  Likewise, someone had to pay for the murder of six Israeli soldiers, even if those killed had nothing to do with the attack.  Oren was just doing his job.  He was following orders.

In our reading from 1 Timothy, the Apostle Paul alludes to his track record as a man of violence and a persecutor of Christians.  As a devout youth, Paul had studied with the esteemed rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem and become an expert in the Torah.  Paul practiced Pharisaic teachings, which touted an extreme piety and devotion as the best way to please God.  In his zeal as a young Pharisee, Paul had endorsed the stoning of the deacon Stephen, the first martyr among Jesus’ followers.  Paul had also harassed the church in Jerusalem, and when many fled to Syria, Paul sought special permission to take his violence on the road, to arrest and return to Jerusalem for punishment all who believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Paul justified his violent behavior, believing that he was rooting out a dangerous sect that defiled Judaism with the news of a false Messiah. 

We may not be members of the Israeli Defense Forces or Pharisees censuring blasphemers, but we know how it feels to be troubled by our pasts, even when we believed that what we were doing was true and righteous.  In fact, our past may continue to haunt our present and trouble our thoughts about the future.

Before coming to Saranac Lake, I enjoyed being a youth pastor in Morton Grove, Illinois.  I like to think that I did some good ministry among the young people of the church, but I think some of my best service was in providing caring presence and compassionate listening for some of the church’s oldest members, our World War II veterans.  They were troubled by remembrance of the friends they left behind on the beaches of Normandy.  They were disturbed by memories of the hate and violence they had directed toward Japanese enemies in the South Pacific.  They realized that they had brought the war home with them after it was over.  They kept secrets from their wives.  They had been emotionally distant with their children.  As Morton Grove welcomed an increasing number of Asian immigrants, they struggled to let go of their painful memories and love their new neighbors.  There were any number of ways that they could reasonably justify their past actions, but their violent pasts still troubled them.

In my twenty-two years of serving churches, I have learned that we can all be troubled by our pasts, whether we have embraced violence and persecution or we have simply engaged in practices that wound the spirit or brought injury to others.  We regret the harm we have caused our families: our impatience and harshness with our children, our failures to care for aging parents, or the too little love that we have shown to our spouse.  We regret the harm we have worked against the human family: our gender bias, our racial hate, our prejudice toward those whose ethnicity, social class, or political views are unlike our own.  We can be adept at justifying our actions and rationalizing our bad behavior, but when we are truly and deeply honest, we know our need for grace.  We know the late-night hours when we pray, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

Paul’s past caught up with him as he hurried down the Damascus Road, intent on arresting those who knew Christ as Lord.  According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was stopped dead, blinded by a heavenly light, and accused by the aggrieved Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Struck blind and powerless, the incapacitated Paul was taken to Damascus, where he spent three days without sight, neither eating nor drinking, pondering how he had gotten things so wrong.

Oren Kalisman’s turn around came during the Passover in April 2002.  In response to a terror attack in Netanya, Oren and his men were sent into the West Bank with orders to occupy Nablus, using whatever means were necessary.  From the second floor of a home that they had occupied, Oren heard gunfire from the room next door.  There, one of his men, a sniper, was firing at an unarmed old man who was seeking to recover the body of a boy, dead in the street below.  When Oren ordered his soldier to stop firing, he learned of orders from their commanding officer to kill with impunity.  Shocked at the inhumanity they had resorted to, Oren realized the moral quandary he was in.  Remembering that moment, the Israeli says, “We were surrounded by Palestinians who were fighting very bravely and who I realized, like ourselves sixty years ago, were fighting out of desperation for their very homes.”  At the end of the operation, Oren voiced his moral concerns and asked to be replaced.

We all have our Damascus Road moments when we are convicted of the harsh truth of sin.  Sin confronts us in the dysfunction that we instill in our families.  Sin shouts at us from the evening news as the murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, or the lead in Jackson, MI drinking water remind us of that racism is part of the fabric of our society.  If we are at all self-aware, we will admit the sin of writing off relationships, doing the wrong thing because it is the easy thing, and allowing ourselves to hate others because their political views are unlike our own.  When we sin against our neighbors, we sin against God.  We sin against Jesus, who asks why we are persecuting him. Lord, have mercy upon us.

Paul tells us good news. Although we act in ignorance and unbelief, the grace of God overflows for us.  Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom Paul deemed himself to be foremost. We are loved and forgiven.  And in the greatness of Christ’s mercy for us, we find a new purpose in service to God and neighbor.  Jesus would use Paul’s zeal to serve God’s Kingdom.  The former persecutor and newly Christened apostle would make multiple missionary journeys, plant countless churches, and touch many lives with the good news of God’s amazing grace that seeks and saves us when we are lost.

Oren Kalisman has found a new purpose.  He has established a chapter of Combatants for Peace in the West Bank community of Nablus where he once was an occupier.  Combatants for Peace brings together former members of the Israeli Defense Forces and former Palestinian combatants.  They share their stories, build relationships, and learn principles of non-violent conflict resolution.  Their goal is nothing less than building a foundation for Israelis and Palestinians that will bring lasting peace to the land.

My wise World War II friends knew that the only way forward from a war to end all wars was through the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ.  They trusted that, even though they might always be troubled by their war experiences, the grace of God overflowed for them.  They poured out their lives in God’s service in simple heartfelt ways. They attended church every Sunday. They shared their skills and abilities for God’s glory: founding a church, building a manse, tending the church gardens, serving on session. They kept God at the heart of their families with Sunday School and table graces, mission trips and church potlucks.  They knew their weakness and trusted that the Lord could do what they could not.  In the eighteen years since I served as one of their pastors, those men have all died.  I have no doubts that grace led each of them home.

The grace of Jesus Christ overflows for us this morning.  We are loved and God is faithful, even if we are, like Paul, the foremost of sinners.  Our immortal, invisible, only-wise God redeems us with a love that is stronger than the persecution of Pharisees or the intractable violence between Israelis and Palestinians.  God’s mercy for us is bigger than the legacy of war or all the ways that we can get things so wrong in our families and the human family. The mercy of God abounds for us and claims us for God’s purpose.  Lord, have mercy!

Resources:

The story of Oren Kalisman was recorded for The Forgiveness Project and may be read at https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories-library/oren-kalisman/

If you would like to learn more about Combatants for Peace, you can at this link: https://cfpeace.org/

Eric Barreto. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 11, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

Benjamin Fiore. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 15, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

Christian Eberhart. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 15, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org

A.K.M. Adam. “Commentary on 1 Tim. 1:12-17” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 12, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org


1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience as an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


By Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17040973

The Good Measure

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 6:27-38 “The Good Measure”

On October 2, 2006, milk truck driver Charles Carl Roberts IV barricaded himself inside the one-room West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, PA.  He had taken ten Amish girls, aged 6-13, hostage.  He lined them up and bound their feet.  As police sought to breach the schoolhouse, Roberts opened fire, killing five children and wounding five others before taking his own life.  Later that day, when the parents of Charles Carl Roberts learned that their son had been the shooter, they were shocked.  The husband Charlie turned to his wife Terri and said, “I will never face my Amish neighbors again.” 

But face them he did.  After the private funeral that the Roberts family held for their son, their Amish neighbors surprised them at the gravesite.  About thirty Amish, some of whom had buried their daughters the day before, showed up, arriving in their buggies and walking across the fields.  They surrounded the Roberts family in a crescent, as a sign of forgiveness and love.  Charlie Roberts’s Amish neighbor came to his home and spent an hour with his arm around him, offering comfort.  Ten months after the tragic attack, the Amish shocked the Roberts and the world again.  Community members had contributed money to create the Roberts Family Fund to support the widow and three young children of the man who had taken the lives of five of their own.

Those gestures of mercy from the Amish may have humbled, puzzled, or even outraged us.  We may have shaken our heads and thought, “Those people are better than I am.  There’s no way I could have put myself at that gravesite.”  Or we could have asked ourselves, “What’s up with that?  How could you hold in your heart both the anguish of untimely, tragic grief and the possibility of compassion for a stone-cold killer?”  Or we may just not have believed it.  Vocal critics at the time argued that the Amish didn’t forgive.  They simply went through the motions of mercy that had been imprinted upon them by their culture.  Yet on the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the Amish girls turned his family away from hate, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.”  Another father said, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he is standing before a just God.”

“Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . . Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  The forgiveness and mercy of the Amish in the wake of the West Nickel Mines school shooting put hands and feet and hearts to those tough words that Jesus spoke to listeners when he delivered that Sermon on the Plain.  For the disciples and others who had gathered to hear Jesus preach, those words would have felt impractical and unthinkable. 

The Ancient Near East was a world driven by retributive violence.  An accidental death could readily explode into the murder of an entire family.  Blood feuds pitted neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation for generations.  If you’d like to read a story of this sort of explosive, escalating, unstoppable violence, take some time to read Genesis 34.  The sons of Jacob took retribution against Shechem, who had sexually assaulted and married their sister Dinah.  To exact revenge, Levi and Simon came upon Shechem and his kin unawares and slaughtered all the men.  Then, Jacob’s other ten sons plundered the community, taking for themselves all the valuables, livestock, children, and wives.

The covenant of the Torah, the Jewish law, tried to limit this escalating cycle of blood violence by teaching a tit-for-tat justice.  Exodus 21 instructs that vengeance must be measured and reciprocal, “If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.”  To help the people move away from blood vengeance, six cities of refuge were designated in Israel. There the perpetrators of accidental manslaughter could claim the right of asylum and await appropriate justice.

Yet Jesus broke even with this moderate teaching of measured retaliation by insisting that his followers exceed the standards of the Torah.  Instead of pulling out their opponent’s teeth and blacking their eyes, Jesus’s friends were to love, do good for, bless, and pray for their enemies.  It was a completely new ethic that flew in the face of everything that his followers knew and experienced.  The love that Jesus enjoined his disciples to practice is agape, the love that God practices.  Agape chooses to act for the good of the other, regardless of what our hearts might be telling us. 

Love your enemies?  Love / agape is a tough choice that we learn to make.  We can only find the ability to practice agape when we consider the mercy of God to us.  Those of you who studied the ten commandments with me a number of years ago will remember that disobeying the moral code that Moses imparted to us carries a death penalty.  We are all deserving of Yahweh’s judgment, and yet God is shockingly merciful.  Instead of judgment and death, God became flesh and entered into this world’s darkness.  In Jesus, God chose to live for us and show to us the way of agape.  Traditional enemies like Romans, Samaritans, and Canaanites were welcomed, helped, and healed.  Clueless, fickle disciples and merciless executioners were prayed for and forgiven.  In the ultimate act of agape, on a merciless cross, flanked by common criminals, Jesus revealed that God loves us enough to die for us.

It is in the enormity of God’s costly love for us that we begin to see another way.  We begin to think that maybe we can move away from demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  We begin to see that only love can heal hearts, transform an enemy into a friend, and make a changed future possible.  With frail and feeble efforts, we begin to choose love.  We fail often.  And yet, we trust that God’s mercy is there to catch us when we fall.  The grace of Christ is sufficient for us. 

What might this transformational ethic of agape look like for us?  It might be letting go of a long-held grudge.  It could be letting bygones be bygones in a family feud.  It might be giving a second chance to a friend who betrayed a confidence.  It could be working hard together to mend a marriage that has endured infidelity.  It is choosing to act always in the best interest of the other and knowing that we can borrow some of God’s love when ours is in short supply.

Jesus described the fruit of a life lived in agape.  He called it the “good measure.”  When you went to a first century marketplace for grain, the merchant filled a measure to the brim and then gave it a good shake to ensure that every nook and cranny was filled.  The merchant then poured that overflowing measure into your apron to carry home.  It’s a beautiful earthy metaphor for a life that abounds with goodness.  When we practice and experience agape, the world gets blessed and so do we.  As we haltingly live into agape, we show God’s Kingdom to the world and in some immeasurable and hopeful way, that Kingdom comes.

In the days following the terrible events at the West Nickel Mines School, Terri and Charlie Roberts, the parents of the shooter, considered leaving the area.  Their grief, shame, and pain were so immense that they couldn’t imagine a way forward, but the Amish did more than forgive the couple, they embraced them as part of the community.  That generous agape prompted the Roberts to host a summer picnic in their backyard for their Amish neighbors, nine months after the attack.  They all came, including a little girl named Rosanna King, wheelchair bound, unable to speak or feed herself, the youngest of their son’s victims. 

A few months later, Terri Roberts asked Rosanna’s mother if she could help with the girl’s care.  Until her death from breast cancer in 2017, Terri spent nearly every Thursday evening at the King Family farm, bathing, reading, and attending to Rosanna until her bedtime.  Terri Roberts remembered the evening that a father said to her, ‘None of us would have ever chosen this.  But the relationships that we have built through it, you cannot put a price on that.”  Terri believed that the Amish choice for agape, the decision to allow life to move forward with love, was profoundly healing for her and her family.  Terri said that is “a message the world needs.” 

“Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . .  Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”


Resources:

Colby Itkowitz. “Her Son Shot Their Daughters 10 Years Ago, Then These Amish Families Embraced Her as a Friend” in The Washington Post, October 1, 2016.  Accessed online at washingtonpost.com.

Story Corps. “A Decade After Amish School Shooting, Gunman’s Mother Talks of Forgiveness” in Morning Edition, Sept. 20, 2016.  Accessed online at npr.org.

Sarah Henrick. “Commentary on Luke 6:27-38” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 20, 2022.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.

Ronald Allen. “Commentary on Luke 6:27-38” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 24, 2019.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.

Susan E. Hylen. “Theological Perspective on Luke 6:27-38” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Charles Bugg. “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 6:27-38” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.


Luke 6:27-38

27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”


Image source: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/03/us/03amish.html