“THE EXCELLENT WAY, 19: LOVE NEVER ENDS”
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 27, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon
Isaiah 49:8-17; John 15:9-17

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
John 15:13

Forty-seven days is a long time. Especially if you’re spending that time floating on an inflatable life-raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The person who went through that ordeal, during the Second World War, was an American airman by the name of Louis Zamperini. He was the bombardier on a B-24 bomber. Louie and his fellow crewmen were out on a rescue mission, searching for another flight crew that had gone down at sea. When the same fate happened to them, other planes took off, looking for them. But nobody saw them.

There were three of them who survived the crash. They’d hauled themselves into two life-rafts, tied together with a piece of rope. The other crewmen had all gone down with the plane. Two of the three would make it to the Marshall Islands, thousands of miles to the west. The third man died at sea.

They had little in the way of provisions: a few chocolate bars and about a day’s supply of water. But their raft had a survival kit that included fishhooks and fishing line. With a little ingenuity, they were able to collect just enough rainwater to keep them alive. They had no bait for the fishhooks, but a succession of sea birds providentially landed on their raft. Those birds became the bait.

The fishing was not easy. There were sharks circling the raft constantly, and they often stole the bait. The men could feel the sharks’ bodies rubbing up against the raft from below.

One day, they heard a plane overhead. They’d hoped it was an American plane, but no such luck. The plane was Japanese. It strafed them, twice, with its machine guns. Louie was the only one strong enough to jump into the water – which he did, despite the sharks. The other two men just curled up, making themselves as small as they could.

After the plane had flown off, there were many bullet-holes in the canvas: but amazingly none of the men were hit. The rafts were leaking like crazy, but they had a repair kit and patched the holes, after a fashion.

When they came at last to the Marshall Islands — then Japanese territory — the two surviving airmen were immediately captured. They weighed just 65 pounds, and could no longer walk. They could only crawl. After some time in a hospital, regaining their strength, they were sent to a POW camp in Japan.

Thus began the second part of their ordeal: because their treatment in that camp was nothing short of barbaric. Their rations were barely enough to keep them alive, and they were regularly beaten. One officer, in particular — the most sadistic of all, an officer named Matsuhiro Watanabe — seemed to have it in for Louie in particular.

That’s because Louie Zamperini was a celebrity. He’d been a world class athlete before the war, a member of the U.S. Olympic Team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was a distance runner who specialized in the 1500 meter race. Some thought he would be the one to break the 4-minute mile.

The prisoners nicknamed Watanabe “the Bird.” The Bird tried to break Louie in the camp, but he never succeeded. Louie’s biography by Laura Hillenbrand is titled Unbroken. The title speaks to Louie’s endurance and sheer grit. I’ve just finished reading it, which is why I happen know his story so well.

There’s also a movie version, directed by Angelina Jolie, but it only tells half the story. (That’s so typical of Hollywood: to tell a great story of faith, but then bail out when it gets to the faith part.) The movie ends with the liberation of the camp. It doesn’t tell of Louie’s third great challenge: a spiritual challenge.

The Japanese couldn’t break Louie Zamperini, but there was something that eventually did. It was his own hatred and anger at his Japanese captors, and especially his nemesis, The Bird.

After the war, Louie married and he and his wife Cynthia started a family. Because of his fame as an Olympic athlete with an amazing story of survival, he became a darling of the journalists. All sorts of business offers and speaking invitations poured in. But Louie had a problem. It’s what we’d call today PTSD. Every night, The Bird would visit him in his dreams, and Louie would relive the beatings, the insults, the abuse. The only way he could find any peace was by drinking, which he did to excess.

In his recurring nightmare, he would try to strangle Watanabe, but he never could. One terrible night, he woke up and discovered he was strangling Cynthia instead.

Through his alcoholic haze, Louie hatched a harebrained scheme to travel to occupied Japan on his own, find The Bird — who, as a war criminal, was on the run from the authorities — and kill him. He thought that was the only way he could be free.

Louie’s life was falling apart. His marriage was on the rocks. Then, in 1949, Cynthia invited him to a tent-meeting revival in Los Angeles, led by a young, unknown evangelist named Billy Graham.

Louie walked out of the meeting before the service was over — “ran away” would be a better description. But his wife kept up the pressure. They went back a second night.

When Billy Graham issued the altar call, Louie again got up to leave: but he found himself walking down to the front instead. That night, Louie Zamperini gave his life to Jesus Christ. And his life was forever changed. He went home and emptied his liquor bottles into the sink.

His Japanese tormentor never again visited him in his dreams. From that day onward, Louie’s life was transformed. He dedicated himself to Christian service. His proudest achievement was opening a camp for troubled boys, which he ran for years. He died in 2014 at the age of 97: not by sharkbite, not by drowning, not by starvation or beating — but of pneumonia, in his own bed.

*****

Memorial Day is a time for remembering those who have died in our nation’s service. Louie Zamperini didn’t die during the war: although he very well could have, on a number of occasions. Some, hearing his remarkable story, would say he led a charmed life: the odds of his survival, with everything he was up against, were nothing short of astronomical.

But Louie’s life wasn’t charmed. Lying on the raft, in his delirium, he prayed to a God he barely knew, promising that, if only God would get him out of his predicament, he would serve him. God just took him up on the offer, that’s all. God brought him through a crucible of suffering. About him, these words from Isaiah 43:1-2 could very well have been written:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Now, there were plenty of other people, during that and other wars, who offered up the same sort of desperate prayers. Today their names are engraved on brass crosses in church sanctuaries, and on the front of baptismal fonts. Why does the Lord grant some of those prayer requests and not others? That’s not something you or I will ever understand.

Maybe, though — just maybe — the likes of you and I will take a few moments away from our Memorial Day beach parties and cookouts to remember their names, and give thanks for their sacrifice.

One of those names is U.S. Navy Ensign John S. LeClerq, assistant gunnery officer of the destroyer Samuel B. Roberts. He died instantly when a Japanese shell destroyed the gun battery he was operating, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Shortly after, the Roberts sank, with terrible loss of life — both in the sinking and in the many hours the survivors floated in shark-infested waters before a few of them were finally rescued.

Ten years later, a shipmate by the name of Dudley Moylan wrote to LeClerq’s mother, sharing his memories of her son:

“It is very easy for me to think of the Roberts and her men as still sailing somewhere, only I am rudely not with them. I miss them both, the living and the dead, and sometimes I can’t remember in which group a friend belongs. They stay alive and they stay young while I grow old. Young and carefree, young all over, young and smiling like Johnny. It is a good way to remember them.”

“No one has greater love than this,” says Jesus in today’s New Testament lesson, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Countless members of our nation’s military have done exactly that. They laid down their lives for their friends.

Louie Zamperini was not one of them. He survived the war. And he discovered, after coming to Jesus Christ, that love is stronger than hate. The love God had for him pushed the hatred and the fear right out of his heart. But love is also stronger than something else. Love is stronger than death.

1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.”

That bitterly divided Corinthian church was fighting over spiritual gifts like prophecies, speaking in tongues, divine knowledge. They were squabbling with one another, saying “I have those gifts and you do not.” Paul, their founding pastor, dismayed by the conflict, writes to them. He writes to them about love.
Love never ends, he tells them. All these lesser gifts they cherish will one day be no more. Only one thing will survive. One thing will still stand. That thing is love.

Plenty of things we know and love in this life do end. The older we all get, the more losses we accumulate, the more things we have to grieve. There are people we have loved and cherished who walk no longer on this earth. There are dreams we’ve had to set aside. There are investments that went sour, jobs that were lost, friends who drifted away.

Talk to people who are very old indeed, people well up in their nineties, and they will all tell you of the odd experience of outliving nearly all their friends. My grandfather, who lived to be 100, used to talk about that all the time. He used to joke about opening the newspaper and turning right to the obituaries. “I’m looking for my friends,” he would say. Then he’d engage in a little gallows humor: “I just have to make sure my name isn’t there.”

None of us, my friends, get out of this alive. Most of us don’t care to reflect upon that truth very often, but there it is: the proverbial elephant in the living room. One day this earthly life of ours will end.

But, Paul assures us, there’s one thing that never ends. It’s love. God’s love. The love that sent Jesus Christ to the cross. The love that brought him forth from the tomb to live again, his life the firstfruits of the new life promised us, if we but do what Louie Zamperini did, and turn our lives over to God.

Trust that love. It will not fail you. It never ends.

Let us pray.
Great God,
our vision is so often dazzled,
our hearts so often distracted,
by treasures that do not last.
We hold onto those treasures with a fierce tenacity,
fearing that if we let go, all is lost.
But all is not lost, O God, in the vast ocean of your love.
We could never be lost
as long as you are seeking us,
calling us to yourself.
Open our hearts today to that still, small voice.
Help us to achieve mastery over our pride.
Free us from our stubborn will that keeps insisting
we can do it all on our own.
Help us to trust your love, which never ends.
Amen.

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.