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!
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.