James Walter Dalzell had a rough and impoverished childhood, and couldn’t wait to leave Albany, Georgia behind, whose town motto is “There’s only one Albany, GA.” Couldn’t think of anything else to say, I guess. So he joined the Navy in 1937 at age 17 – yes, that’s a little young. He went into naval aviation as a radioman and gunner for dive bombers like the TBD Devastator assigned to the USS Yorktown CV-5. And he saw the world. But on December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the US base at Pearl Harbor, not only drawing the US into the war, but also damaging or sinking 16 US warships. So the Yorktown headed from the Atlantic, through the Panama canal, and entered the Pacific theater.
Dalzell woke up on the Yorktown at 0430 on February 1st, 1942, for one of the first offensive American operations of the war, the Marshalls‐Gilberts raids. It was pouring rain and storming thunder. But at 0517, plane 5T7, Dalzell’s plane, took off for a target at the Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The clouds were so thick, the planes couldn’t see each other. Flying completely blind. Early on, there was a flash to the right. Two planes collided. It was so still stormy when they got to Jaluit. There was so much confusion about where the target was and where they were that in looking, they eventually got to the point of not having enough gas to make it back. They did decide to drop a bomb, but weren’t even sure what happened with it, because they couldn’t see the ground.
Dalzell quickly radioed back that they, Plane #7, were going to have to ditch the plane near Jaluit, and then braced for impact, crashing at 0811. Plane #6 landed about 3‐4 minutes later. The #7 crew quickly grabbed a .45 pistol, the plane’s machine gun, and a sword and got on the life raft. Their problem was that the plane wasn’t sinking and would soon attract the attention of the Japanese. They had to shoot and stab at the plane’s flotation bags to get it to finally sink, but not before a Japanese plane had flown over to take a look. The crew of #6 were having the opposite problem. Their plane sank quickly, and so did their own life raft. Dalzell and the #7 crew went over to collect the other 3 men, 6 men for a 3‐man raft, which they took turns getting in and out of. They had to ditch the machine gun because it was too much weight.
Finally, about 3pm, they made it to shore of an island. They saw nobody at first, but eventually an old man came out of the woods and spoke to them in English that he said he had learned while serving in Honk Kong fishing fleets years before. He had about 50‐60 other islanders with him, mostly women and children, as the Japanese had carried off the young men of the island into forced labor. A missionary had been on the island some years prior, the old man said, and had built a house on stilts on the island that wasn’t being used at the time. Once the soldiers and the islanders had realized they weren’t a threat to each other, the old man showed the soldiers hospitality. The old man killed chickens for the men to eat and put the men up in the big house on stilts for them to stay.
Jim Dalzell was a heavy smoker at the time and as he lay on his cot late in the evening, he needed a cigarette so bad he could taste it. He left the house to wander around to see if he could find something, anything at all in this jungle he could smoke. Wandering around, he happened to run into the old man and told him about his problem. The man told Jim to come with him to his thatched hut, where he showed Jim a huge sack of cigarettes that the Japanese had left behind. He offered the whole bag to Jim. “Really, all these? Don’t you want to keep some?” “No, I don’t smoke,” replied the old man. “I’m a Christian.” And that was how my grandfather, Jim Dalzell, spent his 22nd birthday, February 1st, 1942. Carrier, air, water, and now, carrying a sack full of cigarettes back to his island shack.
If you want to find out what happens next, tune in next week.
You think Jim Dalzell was scared? You bet he was. He had good reason to be. And there’s nothing you could tell him that would get rid of the fear, even if you told him he would make it, because the truth is, the next three and a half years of his life were going to be pure hell. But God was at work, and God was going to weave all the details of Jim’s life into a blessing for the whole world that would ripple out into eternity. It is the kind of thing our God does.
Just ask Abram, whom we later know as Abraham. And his wife Sarah. God, however this happened, we aren’t sure how God spoke to Abraham, but at some point, Abraham came to an understanding that God was wanting him to leave his homeland and his father’s security and go… somewhere else. This is the text again: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
There’s a key word in there that is the whole point. Blessing.Up to now here’s what has happened in the Bible. God created everything and blessed it all. Then after the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the snake, God pronounced curses on them. Then Adam and Eve’s son Cain murdered his brother and lived under a curse. Then humanity became more and more corrupt, and God decided to send a great flood and have a do over with only the one good family, and God pronounced a new blessing on that family and on creation, but pretty soon it was back with curses again. Then humanity tried to build a Tower of Babel to assert their independence from God, and that got cursed. And so at the end of Genesis 11, we are left wondering, “Which is going to win out, the blessing or the curse?” This is the part where I am glad I am not God, because I would have given up on humanity. But God says that blessing is going to win the day, is going to restore God’s intentions for all the families of the earth, and God is going to do it all through a particular family who was destined to become a great nation. And ultimately, through that nation, God would send God’s only Son, not to condemn the world but to give everyone from every nation someone to trust for eternal life.
Whom did God choose to be the parents of that great nation that would save the world? Abraham and Sarah. Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65. They had no children. And to top it off, they had the same father. But you know what? Let’s just forget about that part. Different times.
But in order to play their part in being a conduit for God’s blessing to the world, they needed to leave the security of home, and inheritance, and be without family, without community, without land, and without children, and nothing but a promise from a god that was not a god their people knew. Why did it have to be this way? Why couldn’t God use them back home among their Chaldean people in Ur? Why couldn’t God just change the hearts of the whole people of Ur, and then God would have an automatic nation just built in rather than wait generations? Assuming some miracle happens with this old couple.
God isn’t interested in something big. God is interested in something deep. Something long and slow. God isn’t interested in making a new nation overnight that might think a bit too highly of themselves for being chosen and not having any struggle that goes along with it. God wants to start with one person who has no idea where he’s going or how he’s going to get there. And using that person to tell a story to draw in knuckleheads from all nations. God isn’t interested in people “believing” in God with all the right theology as much as God is interested in intimacy, trust. And the circumstances in which that can happen are often when we are out of our comfort zones, whether we are out of them simply because life has thrust us out of our comfort zones, like my granddad at age 22, or because God has summoned us to make an intentional choice to leave our comfort zones, like Father Abraham at age 75. You know who’s turning 75 next year? St. John’s. Get ready!
So I have a message to those of you who are “Abrahamic” in age. Be “Abrahamic” in trust. Nobody in this room should have the attitude that you are winding down. Because today, you’re here, and you’re not done. Every single one of you should feel like you are just getting started. You know, after a few decades of you learning what not to do in life, we really could use the wisdom you have gained. This is the year of Yes. You are crucial in God advancing the mission. Through you we will continue to build a loving, accepting community centered on growing in Christ.
Just like professor Nicodemus, coming to Jesus at night, and Jesus is calling him to get born all over again, and throughout the Gospel of John, you see him reorienting his life as a disciple of Christ, even when he’s already achieved what he had originally wanted out of life.
And you younger folks who don’t have wisdom, time to step out and passionately, courageously, trust God. Make a scene in the Temple if you need to – which, by the way, is the thing that Jesus did right before Nicodemus came to see him. Do not count yourself out simply because you don’t know what you’re doing. None of us do.
And middle aged folks with absolutely no time. You are all right. Don’t beat yourself up. I’m glad you’re listening. You might have more time than you think you do. But even more I want to know that caring for kids, working a stressful job – all that is part of how God’s mission is unfolding in your life. Do the everyday stuff purposefully, knowing that you have gifts to offer and God with you to shape the lives of others for the better. And let being a part of community at St. John’s be a source of strength for you. And maybe God will summon you in the midst of all that to something crazy. Go for it. Don’t later regret playing it safe.
At the end of the day, trust is the only thing that matters. Lent is a time of stripping ourselves down, making ourselves vulnerable, and making the choice to trust God in spite of our weaknesses and our circumstances. Trust that at the end of the day, you’ll be able to say, “Look at what God did with this knucklehead.” The good news is that God’s will for you is that you will not perish, you will not fail God’s ultimate test, but know God’s magnanimous love for you that is holding you up. Lean into it. The more you trust, the sweeter the ride.
Or don’t trust. Took my granddad a long time to trust. But when he did, much later, he looked back and could see signs that God was with him the whole time. My granddad did not perish, and God is using the details of his life to bless people in Hatboro, PA, 81 years later. Much bigger picture than he ever would have thought trying to get out of Albany, GA. God is with you now, inviting you to trust. Get busy having fun by letting go and letting God.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.
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