Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day Sunday 2014: "Unbroken"


(Mt 5:43-45a; Col 3:13b) (11/9/14)


1.      I grew up in a family of veterans, in a town of veterans.  I can remember standing in the back of my Grandpa’s shop listening to the conversations.  That day it was whether or not they were going to be subject to the draft for the Korean War.  One of them, the town trucker had been in the Battle of the Bulge.  He was one of the town characters and the war stories about him were amazing.  Another, the editor of the local paper had been a POW in Germany for three years.  My uncle Dean had been a navigator on a B-29 in the Pacific.  His plane had been hit over Japan and had lost all of electrical systems, all of his navigation systems.  Using celestial bodies he navigated the plane back to the island of Tinian.  That was like navigating from South Dakota to Dallas, TX and finding an island the size of Dallas Love Field with ocean around it as far as the eye could see.  Until recently, I never understood how big a deal that was or how many planes in the Pacific took off and were simply never heard from again because of poor radios, or unreliable planes, or navigations systems that weren’t up navigating hundreds of miles over water with absolutely no reference to anything.  Just water. 

2.      The town appreciated its veterans.  Veteran’s Day was a big deal.

3.      Our last trip to South Dakota, Rosemary’s younger sister, Virginia, a big reader, had two books for me as a gift.  She’s big about buying used books off the internet and she’s a WWII buff.  One of the books had been on the top of my reading list for some time, but I had kept buying others instead of getting to it.  Its title was “Unbroken” and maybe it is the most unforgettable story of WWII and of veterans ever.  Ever.

4.      And I guess I never appreciated the brutality of the war, especially the war in the Pacific.  In the Pacific, of the Allied POWs held by the Japanese, 132,000 of them, one-quarter of them died in captivity.  They were especially hard on Americans.  Thirty-seven percent of the Americans held in Japanese Prisoner of War camps died.
Unbroken is one man’s story.


1.      On Christmas Day, you’ll have a chance to see a movie released in theaters, “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie.  Angelina Jolie doesn’t taken on minor projects.  This is a movie of significance.  This will be a significant movie.  But what I want to tell you is not the story of the movie, but as Paul Harvey used to say, “The rest of the story.” 

2.      But the rest of the story does need some introduction.  I’m going to show you the movie trailer and even that needs some introduction so that you can understand what you are seeing. 

a.       This is the story of Louie Zamperini, an Italian American boy from a good Catholic family and whose mother’s prayers sustained him.

b.      He grew up in California and he probably had ADHD, unknown at that time.  He was always in trouble until his big brother, Pete, channeled his energies into running.

c.       In his senior year in high school he ran the fastest high school mile in the world.

d.      By the age of 19 he tied the American record holder in the 5000 meter race and qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics where he led all Americans and ran the last quarter mile in 56 seconds to finish seventh.  Hitler shook his hand and called him the fast finisher.

e.       His dream was to be the gold medalist in the 1940 Olympics that was to be in Tokyo, Japan.  It wasn’t to be.

3.      Louie Zamperini became a B-24 bombardier in the Pacific.  When he and his crew were on a search mission for another crew that had been lost at sea, their B-24 lost two engines and they were lost at sea as well.

4.      Three of them survived the crash.  They drifted for 47 days starting with a few chocolate bars and six pints of water.  Forty Seven Days!

                               a.      They learned that if they pulled a tarp over them, that albatross would land on them, and if they were quick they could reach us and grab their legs.  These birds were scavengers and they were putrid. 

                              b.      Louie also though that maybe he could catch one of the small sharks that circled the raft.  The first time he tried, it pulled him into the water.  When it turned back on him, he slammed his hand into its nose and scrambled back into the raft.  He tried a smaller one and this time he immediately pulled the shark’s tail out of the water and pulled it into the boat.  Supposedly, the only part of value was its liver and they used the rest of the carcass as bait.

                               c.      Forty seven days!  At one point they went seven days between rains and drinks of water.

5.      In forty seven days they had drifted 2000 miles and washed up on a Pacific island only to become Japanese Prisoners of War.  Thus started a grueling three years of continuous brutality.

6.      So here’s the clip, the trailer of the movie. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8mBzKLhL0U)

7.      I don’t know how the movie will be able to portray the brutality they experienced.  They sometimes existed on no food or two or three cups of seaweed a day.  In their final POW camp which was in Northern Japan, they were slaves in either coal mines or salt mines and beaten everyday, most frequently by a monster the POWs called “The Bird.”


1.      Now the rest of the story.  Louie will tell you that all this time that he was sustained by his Mother’s prayers and by angels, spirits of divine service (Hebrews 1:14) that had protected him.  Although he didn’t recognize it at the time, there were miracles that occurred at his darkest hours that saved him.

2.      Even though the war was over, it wasn’t over for Louie. 

                               a.      Here he was a celebrity, an Olympic athlete that had endured.  He was a hero.  He even captivated and married the girl of his dreams over her parent’s objections.

                              b.      A hero, but he was haunted every night by unbelievable nightmares.  “The Bird” beat him unmercifully in his dreams.  He couldn’t get away from him.  He wanted to choke him.  Revenge became an obsession for him.

                               c.      His only escape was the bottle.  For four years he drowned his dreams.  But of course he couldn’t.  He decided his only hope was to return to Japan and find and kill “The Bird.”

                              d.      By the fourth year he had lost everything.  One night lying in bed beside his wife who was now nine month’s pregnant, he experienced a terrible nightmare and awoke to find himself choking his wife and her screaming at him.

                               e.      After the baby was born, she left him in California and returned to her parents in Florida.

3.      Later that year, she came back to Los Angeles to divorce him.  Cynthia and Louie were in the hall of their apartment building when they bumped into a new couple and began a conversation that was pleasant until the couple mentioned that there was a revival in town.  A young preacher by the name of Billy Graham was launching his first extended crusade.  It was 1949 and Billy was just beginning his ministry.  (It was the 1949 Greater Los Angeles Revival that defined Billy Graham as an evangelist) Louie didn’t want to hear anything of it and turned and left.

                               a.      Cynthia came back to the apartment and asked Louie to take her that night.  He refused.  She said, then I’m going alone.  That’s alright, he had drinking to do.

                              b.      Cynthia came back on fire.  She wasn’t going to divorce him.  Louie was elated until he realized she had had a religious awakening and that turned him sour.  Cynthia wanted him to go with her.  She begged him for a week.  He finally relented.

4.      That night Billy talked about the woman brought to Jesus who had been caught in adultery and Jesus kneeling and writing in the sand.  What did they see him write?  Could it have been their life story?  Billy said, “God takes in everything about your life from the day you are born until the day you die.  And when you stand before God on that judgment day, they are going to pull down the screen and run the movie that will include everything you did, everything you said, everything you thought.  You are going to say, ‘I was a good man’ but your own deeds, your own words, your own thoughts are going to condemn you.  And he is going to say, ‘depart from me.’”  Billy told of hell and salvation.  And he said, “Tonight there is a drowning man, a drowning woman, a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is out lost in the sea of life.”
Louie knew he was talking about him but he wouldn’t accept it.  He became angry and grabbed Cynthia’s arm and bolted for the door.
That night he experienced the nightmares again.  Bird had taken off his belt striking him alongside his head with his buckle.  He was looking at the face of the Devil.

5.      Cynthia spend all the next day begging Louie to go back to hear Billy Graham one more time.  All day.  Finally he gave in. That night in the tent, Billy talked about suffering, why is it that good people suffer?  He began his answer by pointing to the stars.  “When I look at the stars in this California sky, I see the footprints of God.  I think to myself, that God, my Father, has hung them there and holds them there with the omnipotent power of his hand.  Even though he runs the whole universe, he is not too busy to count the hairs on my head or to see the sparrow when it falls because God is interested in me.” 
Billy went on talking of the miracle and intangible blessings that we all experience in our lives.  He said, “If you suffer, he will give the strength to go forward.”

                               a.      Louie found himself thinking of all the unexplained things that had sustained him through those three years that could only be explained in the impossible was possible.  But he couldn’t accept it.  Billy said, “All he requires of you is faith.”

                              b.      Louie bolted for the exit.  As he got to the end of the row, everything around him disappeared.  In his mind, he was back in the raft, in the middle of the ocean, endless ocean with his buddy Phil curled up beside him.  Louie was dying of thirst.  His lips were parched.  Then he remembered a promise he had made in the form of a prayer.  A prayer and a promise he had forced out of his mind until that moment.  He had told God, “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”  If you save me, I will serve you forever.

                               c.      He was at the end of the row, but instead of turning left to the exit, he turned right and went forward to the call that God was making through Billy Graham.  Billy said, “This is it.  God has spoken to you.”

6.      When Louie got home that night, he went to the liquor cabinet, picked up all the bottles and poured him down the sink.  He took his cigarettes and dumped them in the garbage.  That night Louie slept.  He awoke in the morning cleansed.  Bird had not entered his dreams that night and he never would again.

7.      That day, Louie dug out a Bible and went to the park and sat reading it.  Softly he wept.  Louie Zamperini was a new creation in Christ Jesus.  A new creation.  As a new creation, he would never again have the feeling of revenge of retribution.  They had left him forever.  “But I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”  It was 1949.  From that day forward, that verse would define his life.

8.      In 1950, he returned to Japan and went to the prison where all of the camp guards were imprisoned, 850 of them.  He stood before them and forgave them.  Then he asked his guide if he could see those from the three camps where he had been imprisoned, those who had guarded him.  He forgave them.  Each one of them.  Each one of them individually.  “Forgive one another, as God is Christ has forgiven you.  So you must also forgive.”  Only “The Bird” wasn’t there.  No one knew where he was.  Some thought he was dead.

9.      In 1954, Louie opened a camp for Juvenile boys, Victory Boys Camp.  He had scraped every dollar together that he could and built most of the camp himself.  That camp became his life’s work.  He showed the boys his love of the outdoors, he opened up life for them, showed what they could become.  Of course, too, he added a mild dose of Christianity.  He also managed the senior center at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, and of course traveled telling his story and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

                               a.      He was never able to race again.  One of his ankles had been badly injured during his internment.  But he carried the torch in five different Olympic Games, the last when he was 80 years old.  The Olympics were in Nagano Japan and the torch route when right by the last prison camp Naoetsu in which Louis was imprisoned.  Louie carried the torch past the camp joyfully.

                              b.      CBS who was doing the television coverage and a special on Louie Zamperini had found “The Bird” and interviewed him, unrepentant until that day.  They asked if he would meet with Louie.  He refused.  Louie had written him a letter of forgiveness, the closing saying, “I forgive you, and would also hope that you would now become a Christian.”

                               c.      Louie passed away this past July 2nd at the age of 97 in the midst of the making of the movie.


1.      This week we pause to celebrate Veteran’s Day.  The government website tells us “It’s a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and to sacrifice for the common good.”

2.      No story tells us of the sacrifice and service like this one.  I for one am going to see the movie during the holiday season.

3.      But the rest of the story tells us so much more:

                               a.      God can take our brokenness and make of us new creations.  Of that the story assures us.

                              b.      God can take our bitterness and anger and hatred seemingly justified by man’s inhumanity to man.  He can take that away and replace it with love of enemies.  “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” 

                               c.      God can take the need for revenge and retribution and replace it with forgiveness.  “Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you so you must also forgive.”

                              d.      And in so doing, God can place joy and hope in our lives that will carry us the rest of our days.

4.      As we remember our veterans this week, let us remember the God of all veterans and all peoples everywhere.  God the giver of faith.  The giver of hope.  The giver of forgiveness.  The giver of love.  Amen.