Homily by The Rev. Marcia McRae
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bainbridge, GA, 7 Sept. 2014, Proper 18
Year A RCL: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
How do Prisoners of War in North Vietnam teach us about today's Gospel?
Jesus tells us in today's Gospel that we are to act in unity, not alone. God creates us for community. We are to trust God with the future results.
Jesus says: “...if 2 of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Obviously Jesus isn't talking about you & me agreeing to rob a bank.
He says: “...(W)here 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Jesus is with us. He is talking about how we live in community – how our love enhances life.
The Prisoners of War incarcerated in large holding cells in Hanoi during the Vietnam war know the truth of this Gospel. They know the value of living in unity.
Without faith in God & trust in each other, how could the American POWs have overcome harsh punishments to gain the freedom to pray together in the prison called the Hanoi Hilton?
The year is 1970 just before Christmas when 43 American prisoners seek to have brief worship.
The guards prevent it.1 Ultimately, faith in God triumphs.
The New York Times tells this story2 of the test of their unity & their faith in God as they resist their captors' harsh treatment:
After worship is denied, Navy pilot Lt. Commander Ned Shuman creates their resistance plan. He knows he will be the first to be beaten in a torture cell. He asks the men: “Are we really committed to having church Sunday? I want to know person by person.” One by one each man says “Yes.” “At that moment (Ned Shuman knows) he (will) end up in a torture cell.”3
That Sunday he steps up to lead the Lord's Prayer. The guards hustle him away to his beating. (He spends 17 months in solitary confinement.)
One by one the next 4 ranking officers step up to lead the prayer & are taken away for beatings.
By then “the guards (are)...hitting P.O.W.s with gun butts & the cell (is) in chaos,”4 says Air Force pilot & Medal of Honor recipient, Leo K. Thorsness. “...(T)hen...the 6th ranking senior officer (says), 'Gentlemen, the Lord's Prayer.'”
This time they finish the prayer.
The guards have yielded.
The captors see love of God in action, love of community in action. This faith, this fearless trust spills over to other cell blocks.
In a different cell block is the 1st American pilot captured in the Vietnam War, Everett Alvarez Jr., captured in 1964, as the NYT article says. He says Ned Shuman's defiance inspires senior officers in other cells to resist:
“It was contagious. By the time it (got to the 4th or 5th cell” (the guards) gave up.” Prisoners were praying & singing patriotic songs.
From that Sunday until their release in 1973, the POWs' right to pray together was established. They held church services each Sunday until their return home.
A pilot from Shuman's cell block Air Force pilot & Medal of Honor recipient, Leo K. Thorsness says: “42 men in prison pajamas followed (Ned Shuman's) lead. I know I will never see a better example of pure raw leadership or ever pray with a better sense of the meaning of the words (of the Lord's Prayer).”5
Praying these words together sustains the POWs for years.
What do these words say to you?
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be (holy is) your Name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread
(what we need to sustain us).
Forgive us our sins as we forgive
those who sin against us
(those who have just beaten us with gun butts).
Save us from the time of trial & deliver us from evil...
One man trusts God to deliver him from evil, to BE with him in the harshest of times. One man binds the love of God to his heart. One man looses & lets go of fear. Look what a difference one man makes.
Look at the positive difference that one community of men in prison pajamas makes for their fellow prisoners when they put on the armor of light.
Think of the positive difference we, who are free can make, when we put on the armor of light, as Paul tells us to do in Romans. Think of the positive difference we can make together when we bind God's love to our hearts, loose & let go fear, live & work in unity for God's glory – right here.
Book of Common Prayer And Hymnal. New York: The Church Hymnal Corp., and The Seabury Press. 1979.The Four Translation New Testament. Minneapolis: World Wide Publications. New York: The Iversen Assocs. 1966.
Goldstein, Richard. “Edwin Shuman, 82, Dies; Defied Hanoi Hilton Guards”. National Section. P. A15. The New York Times. 25 Dec. 2013.
Harper’s Bible Commentary. General Ed.: James. L. Mays. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers. 1988.
Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bind. Accessed: 6 Sept. 2014.
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/loose. Accessed: 6 Sept. 2014.
Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Lectionary Page. http://www.lectionarypage.net/. Accessed: 4 Aug. 2014.
The New American Bible for Catholics. South Bend: Greenlawn Press. 1986.
Voyles, Robert J. Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment. Hillsboro, OR: The Appreciative Way. 2010.
1 Goldstein, Richard. “Edwin Shuman, 82, Dies; Defied Hanoi Hilton Guards”. The New York Times. P. A15.
2 Ibid. Goldstein. New York Times.