Rev. Tina Walker-Morin
Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC
May 29, 2016
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our strength and our redeemer, Amen.
This morning on this Memorial Day Sunday, I have a message for you about faith.
Memorial Day can easily get lost in the mix of excitement of a long weekend, of hot dogs and bar-b-ques and the beginning of summer. While all of these things are fun if we pause for a moment and think about the holiday, we can see it is really a spiritual day. Memorial Day is a day to remember the men and women, who because their faith in this country and for many because of their faith in God, lost their sacred lives.
I came across this story of one Marine, Edgar Harrell that I would like to share with you…
“On a summer day in July 1945, the USS Indianapolis delivered components for two atomic bombs to a U.S. Army base in the Pacific Ocean.
Just days before the bombs would be used to help end World War II, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. It sank in 12 minutes, taking about 300 American officers and crew members with it and leaving around 880 to fend for themselves in the deep Pacific.
Edgar Harrell, a Marine who was on board the USS Indianapolis, was one of only 317 to survive.
The now 90-year-old Kentucky native recently published a book, "Out of the Depths", describing his experience in what he called the "greatest tragedy at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy."
Harrell attributed his survival entirely to "the good Lord."
"I look up to heaven today and just say, 'Thank you, Lord,’ ” he said in an interview with the Deseret News. "Without the providence and higher power, I never would have made it."
Harrell, who currently lives in Tennessee, remembers the night very clearly. He and his fellow soldiers were sleeping on the open deck because it was too hot to sleep in the cabin.
About 14 minutes after midnight, Japanese Capt. Mochitsura Hashimoto fired torpedoes, and they struck the USS Indianapolis. The first one hit the front of the ship and cut the bow off entirely.
"We could see the ship was doomed," Harrell said. "You could hear the bowheads breaking."
He said the captain gave word to abandon ship, and Harrell grabbed a life jacket and jumped into the dark blue ocean.
From the water, he watched the ship turn up on its nose and then disappear into the Pacific.
Harrell said the survivors grouped together the best they could with only life jackets to keep their heads above water. He ended up in a group of about 80 men floating in the ocean.
He knew SOS signals had been sent out before the ship sank, and he expected to be rescued shortly.
"I was wondering if somehow I could endure, not realizing that we were going to be out there for four and a half days," he said.
Somehow, the SOS signals were either not picked up or not responded to. The surviving 880 men spent the next 4½ days fighting for their lives against the unrelenting Pacific Ocean without food, water or life rafts. They faced salt water exposure, dehydration, shark attacks, hallucinations and extreme hunger, thirst and fatigue. Harrell said the water they were swimming in included a mixture of oil and blood.
"Nearly at the point of losing hope, you see a buddy who had been attacked by a shark (and) who is maybe disemboweled, and you think if that's maybe not going to be you soon," he said.
But he said his faith in the Lord and thoughts of his family kept him going.
"I believe that it was the power of God that gave me hope," he said. "I had accepted the Lord as my own personal help and Savior and felt that somehow, some way, I had prayed that I don't want to die. I had a family back home, a mom and dad and six siblings. And a certain brunette who said she would wait for me."
He said others were praying too.
"Everyone was pouring their heart out to the Lord whether they knew him or not," he said. "There was no atheist out there. Everyone prayed."
But by the third day, Harrell had no idea where the other survivors had drifted off to, and only 17 of the 80 men that had been grouped together with him were still alive. He watched many simply give up hope.
By the fourth day, it was just him and one other man for as far as he could see. He said their life jackets had lost most of their buoyancy, and they were sitting on them and paddling to keep afloat.
Late that afternoon, they saw a low-flying plane. The pilot was having some problems with the antenna and happened to open the plane door to fix it just as he was flying over the wreck. From 4,000 feet up, the pilot saw the massive oil spill in the water.
"By the providence of God, he saw the oil slick," Harrell said. He said the pilot flew lower and saw dozens of sharks among the floating men and debris as far as he could see.
Harrell remembers the feelings of immense joy and gratitude he felt when he knew he was being rescued.
"Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord," he said, recalling that day. "I was so delighted."
Harrell was finally reunited with his family after the long journey home and months in the hospital. He married the brunette and started a business, but he didn't share the details of his experience with anyone. He said it hurt too much.
However, after 9/11, his son prompted him to write his story and share it with the world.
He hopes his story can inspire people to have more faith in God and greater respect for U.S. servicemen.
"So many people around the country do not have the proper respect for those who have gone and given their lives and who are in our service today," he said. "Freedom costs. And it cost 880 of my shipmates."
He asks that people offer gratitude and encouragement to servicemen whenever they can.
"I walk around the grocery store and see a serviceman, and I give him a thumbs up," he said.
In addition to his book efforts, Harrell goes around the country and gives speeches to share his story. He said he has received feedback from many people telling him how his story has influenced them for the better.
"That has been a ministry, even for me," he said. "I've strived to live for him since that day."
He shares his story in hope that it will inspire faith in God.
Edgar Harrell’s faith was put to the test, just as Jesus was often tested. Today’s passage is a test for Jesus to see if he truly practices what he preaches. Our scripture sets the stage for a conflict, the Centurion is a gentile, and a representative of the Roman army that is oppressing the nation could be construed as an enemy to the Jews. Will Jesus help this enemy, will he help save the Centurion’s dying slave, will he follow what he just preached during the “Sermon on the Plain” about “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27)? Well we know the answer and it is a resounding yes!
The Centurion is meant to be an impressive, powerful character but even with all his prestige and power he knows Jesus’ power is even greater for he only has to “speak the word” and the servant will be healed (Luke 7:7).
The interesting thing is that even though the Centurion knows Jesus’ power and has faith in him, he himself does not go running down the street to find Jesus. Instead he sends two sets of people; the first being Jewish elders who appeal to Jesus on the ground that the centurion is worthy because even though he is a Gentile he loves the Jews, as shown by him building a synagogue for them. As Jesus is on his way a second group comes up to him. These are friends of the Centurion who bring the message from the Centurion that he does not believe he is worthy to have Jesus in his home.
The centurion felt unworthy for he knew that Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi was forbidden to come into the “unclean” Gentile house. Yet Jesus is amazed by this man’s faith, for the Centurion says to Jesus, “just say the word, and let me servant be healed” (v. 7).
There are several qualities of the Centurion we can gleam from this scripture. The first is his care for other people. He seeks out Jesus to heal his slave. Surely he had many other slaves, or could have easily replace this one individual yet he cares about this person. He cares enough to as stated in James 4:10 “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you”. The Centurion deems himself unworthy of a visit from Christ, even though he is a prominent man. And perhaps because of these second qualities, humility and most importantly his faith, Jesus cures the slave.
The last quality which stands out is the Centurions confidence and ability to speak about his faith in Jesus to his friends. It is easy to be a faithful person in private, to come sit in the pews, worship and pray to God, the hard part comes in speaking about our faith to other people. This is what I mean my friends with the title of my sermon “Get out of the Pews!” We are called to immolate the centurion and the Marine Edgar Harrell to speak and act on our faith beyond these walls.
The Centurion did not wait in his house for Jesus, he takes action and goes. The words he uses to describe how the soldiers respond to him really stood out to me:
I believe these words ring true for us today. We are called to “Go” beyond these church walls and to “Do this”, to talk about our church and our faith. How often do you talk about your faith with people outside of Pilgrim? Do you mention things like, the other day at church…or the kids at my church are so adorable they practically teach the children’s sermon themselves…or the other night as I was preparing a meal to take to a church member I saw on the news... This is what I mean just in normal conversation with friends, neighbors, colleagues and family mentioning your faith life. And finally we are called to “come” to come home to church to be filled and to grow in faith with one another.
Faith is real, when faith is put into action. We are called to get up and get out of these pews, we are called to go join Jesus in faith. We need to talk to our friends and neighbors about our faith from a place of honesty and love. Maybe your personal story will inspire others just as Marine Edgar Harrell and so many other great service men and women have inspired us. So go, do this, and come, come back to God.
The amazing element of this story is that Jesus was the one who is amazed -- not the centurion. How can we amaze Jesus and others with our faith?