Things are not always what they appear to be.
I read about a family that went on a walk to gather wild mushrooms. Reaping a bountiful harvest of mushrooms, they returned to their home and prepared a mushroom feast. They cooked a mushroom casserole; sautéed mushrooms, stuffed mushrooms, prepared mushrooms and rice, and sliced mushrooms for garden salads. It was delicious, and they were full when they finished their feast.
They were preparing to wash the various utensils, pans, and plates when one of the family members noticed that the family cat was lying on its side in a corner of the kitchen. The cat seemed to be having some difficulty as its body was twitching. Quickly the family came to the conclusion that the cat must have eaten some mushrooms that had fallen on the floor during the food preparation. Even more quickly, they concluded that the mushrooms they had enjoyed only minutes before must have been poisonous. Rushing out of the house, the family drove to the hospital, explained what had happened, and then had their stomachs pumped.
The family returned to the house sometime later with tender stomachs and relieved minds. Upon entering the house one of the family members said that they should check on the cat to see if it was still alive. They walked quietly and hesitantly into the kitchen and found the cat nursing a newborn family of kittens.
Things are not always what they appear to be.
At first sight, it appeared that Paul had it all. He was a brilliant individual with a stellar educational background. A Roman citizen by birth, he had all the privileges granted by the most powerful nation in the world. In addition to the power of being a Roman citizen, Paul was also a Pharisee, a person of power and influence in Judaism. Noted for their strict observance of rites and ceremonies of the written law of Israel, the Torah, Pharisees insisted that Jewish citizens should adhere to their interpretations of the Torah. Not only was Paul a Pharisee, he was the son of a Pharisee. A rising star in the ranks and hierarchy of Judaism Paul had a “Double A-Type A get it done yesterday” personality which helps explain why Paul led the charge against a new sect that had emerged in Judaism known as “the Way.”
This was a sect identified in Acts 9:2 as “the Way.” People of “the Way” offered an interpretation of the Torah that was different from the Pharisee’s teaching of the Torah. The Pharisees taught about the importance of being justified with God by observing the Torah. People of “the Way” taught that:
- Jesus was God’s Messiah whose identity was revealed through Jesus’ crucifixion
- Jesus was God’s only Son who was raised from the dead
- Jesus’ followers were justified with God through the mercy of Jesus
As any good Pharisee would know, these affirmations of faith about Jesus were contrary to Pharisaic interpretations of the Torah. The Pharisees taught that observance of the Torah was key to living in right relationship with God. To teach otherwise was blasphemous and punishable by death which was fine with Paul as he pursued and persecuted Jesus’ followers.
Acts 7:59-60 tells of Paul’s pursuit of Jesus’ believers when Stephen became the first martyr of the Christian faith.
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Acts 9:1-3 tells of Paul on the road to Damascus where he planned to arrest Jesus’ followers. It is on the road to Damascus that Paul discovered that things are not always what they appear to be as Paul the pursuer realized was Paul the pursued. It was on the road to Damascus that Paul discovered that things are not always what they appear to be as Paul the unmerciful encountered Jesus the merciful.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked him for letters to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus provided the foundation for a new direction in Paul’s life as he encountered God’s mercy as described in today’s scripture reading from I Timothy 1:15-16: 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. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. With the light of Jesus’ mercy shining upon him, Paul set forward in a new direction with his life. Discovering that things may not always be what they appear to be, Paul the persecutor of Jesus became Paul the proclaimer of Jesus as Paul, the unmerciful, received mercy.
Following the end of apartheid in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed. Assembled in South Africa in 1996 after the end of apartheid and led by such figures as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu the commission invited victims and witnesses of the hideous crimes that happened during apartheid to share their experiences. Then, the perpetrators of violence would give their own testimony and seek amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. Even though the commission’s work had certain limitations and received criticisms, it well exemplified that mercy can prevail in ways that are unexpected.
Mary Ann Bird was born with multiple birth defects – deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a disfigured face, a crooked nose, lopsided feet. “I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it,” she said. “When I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to others.” When schoolmates asked her, “What happened to your lip?” Bird said, “I’d tell them I’d fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.”
In her memoir entitled The Whisper Test, Mary Ann tells of the power of words of acceptance in her own life. She Bird’s second-grade teacher was Mrs. Leonard, whom she described as “short, round, happy – a sparkling lady.” Each year, the school administered hearing tests. Bird tells what happened: “Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back – things like “The sky is blue,” or “Do you have new shoes? I waited there for those words that God must have put into her mouth, those seven words that changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, “I wish you were my little girl.” It was in that powerful and merciful moment that Mary Ann discovered that things are not always what they appear to be. She started to understand herself as loved and lovable and dared to envision a future not constrained by her circumstances but a future that could transcend them. Indeed, following in the footsteps of the teacher who set her free, Mary Ann Bird herself became an acclaimed teacher known for her compassion, mercy, and kindness.
May God bless us with unexpected mercy.
by Pastor Marc Brown
September 11, 2022
Accompanying Scriptures: 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for September 11, 2022
Scripture Lesson 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
The Good News “Mercy”
Music “Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)” by Chris Tomlin
Closing Music “Wayfaring Stranger” arr. Mary McDonald