Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sermon, Third Sunday of Easter May 5, 2019

'But to live the life of forgiveness is a way that does not cut off the future. It is a way that prays for those who are our enemies. It is a way that does not take vengeance. It is a way that does not give up on the other until death. And it is a way that plants seeds, seeds that may well bear fruit in ways that we never would have expected.'

Lesson: Acts 9:1-20

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
(He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Fleet attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bringing the United States into the Second World War. Mitsuo Fuchida, a Japanese airman, led the first wave of the surprise attack. As he approached Pearl Harbor and saw the American ships sitting undefended at anchor, he famously radioed the code for complete success back to the commanding Admiral before a single bomb had been dropped: ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’

On the same day, Jacob DeShazer, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, was on KP duty in California. When he heard the news of the attack and decimation of the fleet in Hawaii, he hurled a potato at the wall and shouted, ‘Jap, just wait and see what we’ll do to you!’

On April 18, 1942, DeShazer was a bombardier in the famous ‘Doolittle Raid.’ B-24 bombers which had been specially modified to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet successfully bombed Tokyo, under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle. The raid caused little actual damage but had huge psychological consequences for the Japanese people.

Unfortunately, because a Japanese mini-sub had spotted the carriers, the planes had had to take off three hours earlier than planned. Even though they were able to bomb the target, many of the planes did not have enough fuel to reach Chinese-held territory, where they would be safe. DeShazer was one of those who had to bail out from his plane early. He, along with others from his plane, were captured by the Japanese. He would be a prisoner in Japan for forty months, thirty-four of them in solitary confinement.

Three of his crewmates were shot by the Japanese. Another friend, a Christian, died of starvation. DeShazer continued to survive, but his hatred for the Japanese deepened.
But in time, he began to wonder about the hatred he held for the Japanese, and about the hatred the Japanese felt for Americans. He remembered what he had heard about Christianity changing hatred between human beings into real brotherly love.

His captors allowed him a Bible, but only for three weeks. During those three weeks he read constantly, and the words of the Scripture led him to faith in Jesus Christ. He began to look at his Japanese captors differently – inspired by the words of Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

DeShazer was freed from captivity on August 20, 1945. After the war, he wrote of the experiences I have summarized for you. He concluded, ‘I have completed my training in a Christian College, God having clearly commanded me, ‘Go, teach the Japanese people the way of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ,’ and am now in Japan as a missionary, with the one single purpose to lead me – to make Christ known.’

After the Japanese surrender, Mitsuo Fuchida, the man who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor, returned to his home village and begun farming. But he became depressed and discouraged. He was not charged as a war criminal, but was called to testify in the trials. When he arrived in Tokyo to testify, he saw an American distributing literature, and took a pamphlet entitled I Was a Prisoner of War in Japan. It was the very work that DeShazer had written about his experiences.

Later, Fuchida recalled, ‘His story, printed in pamphlet form, was something I could not explain. Neither could I forget it. The peaceful motivation I had read about was exactly what I was seeking. Since the American had found it in the Bible, I decided to purchase one myself, despite my traditionally Buddhist heritage.

In the ensuing weeks, I read this book eagerly. I came to the climactic drama – the Crucifixion. I read in Luke 23:34 the prayer of Jesus Christ at his death: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ I was impressed that I was certainly one of those for whom he prayed…Right at that moment, I seemed to meet Jesus for the first time. I understood the meaning of his death as a substitute for my wickedness, and so in prayer, I requested him to forgive my sins and change me from a bitter, disillusioned ex-pilot into a well-balanced Christian with purpose in living.’

DeShazer and Fuchida eventually met, and spoke together to audiences many times. These former mortal enemies were united in Christ. To see and hear them together must have been a powerful witness, even as hearing their stories today is for us.

Do we not hear in their stories an echo of the stories of Saul and Ananias? Saul, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, and Ananias, hearing of Saul and no doubt hating him for what he was doing to the brothers and sisters? Are we not amazed that these two were brought together and united in Christ, just as were Jacob DeShazer and Mitsuo Fuchida?

And yet we might also be amazed that so many of those who call themselves Christians do not know of the life of forgiveness. We can be amazed and saddened that their love does not extend to those who have wronged them – that they cannot make Jesus’ prayer their own – Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. But these words, which among others transformed the lives of Jacob Deshazer and Mitsuo Fuchida, have the power to transform our lives, to liberate us from the chains which bind us.

We do not believe that if we simply forgive others, their lives will automatically change. Nor do we need to remain in relationships that are completely unhealthy for us and for the other. Others should not use the command to forgive as a tool to dominate us. To forgive is neither simple nor safe.

But to live the life of forgiveness is a way that does not cut off the future. It is a way that prays for those who are our enemies. It is a way that does not take vengeance. It is a way that does not give up on the other until death. And it is a way that plants seeds, seeds that may well bear fruit in ways that we never would have expected.   

We think of death and resurrection as something that only happened to Jesus and will happen to us after our death. But today we have heard four real stories of death and resurrection in this life. Saul and Ananias, DeShazer and Fuchida all experienced death to the old life of selfishness, vengeance and hatred – the life we call sin – and the resurrection to the new life of selflessness, forgiveness and love – the life we call God’s.

Martin Luther writes in his Small Catechism, ‘What does baptism mean for daily living? Answer: It means that the old self with all its sins and evil lusts should be drowned by daily sorrow for sin and repentance and that the new self should rise up daily to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.’

Death and resurrection is the story of Easter. This is the prayer we pray on Easter Sunday: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, so that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!