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S.O.S

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Apr 15

The Second Sunday of Easter
Text: Psalm 118

At the risk of disappointing all of you fans of the ever-relatable doubting Thomas, I’m going to take a break from that classic second Sunday of Easter scripture and instead take as my text for today the words of Psalm 118. It’s a festival psalm and one that we often hear this time of year. It echoes the themes of the Palm Sunday procession, with its glad shouts of Hosanna, which means “save us” in Hebrew. It’s often used as a Call to Worship in Eastertide: ‘Open the gates of righteousness!’ … ‘God has become our salvation!’... ‘The stone that builder rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ which of course Christians have come to see as a metaphor for the crucified and risen Christ. Strung throughout the psalm are notes of joyous thanksgiving. Verses 25-26 of Psalm 118, taken together with a few lines of praise from Isaiah 6 make up a very long standing Christian hymn called the Sanctus which is part of the Roman Catholic Mass and also part of our Communion services here. We often sing it just before we remember Jesus and break the bread. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!’

In fact, in just a little while, Carolyn, her band and the choir will treat us to a version of the Sanctus composed by the great pianist and songwriter Mary Lou Williams! Its commonly called “Hosanna.” Not unlike Duke Ellington (who we discussed last time Carolyn was with us), Williams also had a stretch in ‘50’s and ‘60’s when she focused on writing sacred music. The piece we are about to hear is from what is lovingly known as Mary Lou’s Mass. After taking a hiatus from performing, having converted to Catholicism in 1956, and having been convinced to return to the stage by two priests and Dizzie Gillespie, she eventually came to share her sacred and secular music more broadly and even on television. Mary Lou’s Mass was featured on the Dick Cavett show in 1971. Carolyn, I’m thinking we should try to get you a gig on Steve Colbert to keep the tradition going!

I’ll let her music do the rest of the talking when the times comes. As we listen though, I invite us all to ponder this theme of Hosanna, and the line from the psalm, Save us, Lord, we beseech you! Hosanna! Save us! It’s an oft-heard though rarely reflected on expression that begs several questions: Save us from what? we might wonder. How do we know whether or if God can save us in the first place? And are we saved all at once or does it happen over time? I’ll come back to this theme. Before I go further though, I have a confession to make, and a story.

After a long Holy Moly Week as we sometimes call it in the office, I awoke on Monday morning and read a fascinating article in the New York Times about the Titanic and how people came out by the thousands to greet the Carpathia, the rescue ship that brought the survivors to Manhattan. I read a few more articles from the archives of the Times and found myself somewhat engrossed. And then I remembered, Titanic, the movie, had just been re-released in 3D. I had seen it when it first came out, remembered the cool special effects, the set, the sheer scale of all that multi million-dollar movie magic! Here’s the confession. I decided to play hookie and I went to see it, all by myself, in the middle of the day, on one of those huge screens over near Fenway! Appalling, I know, but it get worse. Wouldn’t you know I cried like a little baby all the way through it especially when Rose had to let go of Jack and swim for the whistle to call the rescue boat. What a sap! Ah…well, it was just the break and clergy catharsis I needed on Easter Monday.

Today of course is the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking in the middle of the north Atlantic. Hollywood romance and drama aside, its an amazing story. There was a New Yorker article this week about why so many are so fascinated with the story – the themes of man vs. nature, or humanity’s hubris, of death striking steerage and first class equally, and how, in the end, we’re all on the same ship. The satirical newspaper, the Onion, ran a belated headline in 1999: WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICE-BERG. Well, of the many stories and metaphors within the story, there is one I came across this week that the movie missed. It’s a story told from the perspective of a young Titanic survivor named Mr. Harold Bride who was the assistant Marconi or wireless operator on board. The full testimony – and I do mean testimony -- was published in New York Times on April 28th, 1912. With that theme of Hosanna echoing in your minds, hear his words now:

In the first place, the public should not blame anybody because more wireless messages about the disaster to the Titanic did not reach shore…. I positively refused to send press dispatches because the bulk of personal messages with touching words of grief was so large...To begin at the beginning, I joined the Titanic at Belfast. I was born at Nunhead, England, 22 years ago, and joined the Marconi forces last July…

I didn't even feel the shock. I hardly knew it had happened after the Captain had come to us. There was no jolt whatever. "We've struck an iceberg," the Captain said, "and I'm having an inspection made to tell what it has done to us… We could hear a terrible confusion outside, but there was not the least thing to indicate that there was any trouble. The wireless was working perfectly. "Send the call for assistance," ordered the Captain, barely putting his head in the door. "What call should I send?" Phillips[my senior office] asked.
"Send the regulation international signal for help. Just that." When the Captain was gone, Phillips began to send "C.Q.D."

Parenthetically, just what exactly C.Q.D stood for is a matter of some debate. “Come…Quick…Danger”, or I “Seek You…Distress” are more common ideas. Technically, it means: “All Stations….Distress.” Bride continues:

He [tapped] away at it and we joked while he did so. All of us made light of the disaster. The humor of the situation appealed to me. I cut in with a little remark that made us all laugh, including the Captain…."Send S.O.S.," I said. "It's the new call, and it may be your last chance to send it." Phillips with a laugh changed the signal to "S.O.S.”

Clearly, the men had no idea what was coming. For ten minutes, they sent and received messages including one that help was on the way from the Carpathia. The captain came back again and told them they were sinking by the head. By that time they could observe that he boat was leaning and listing forward. Bride continues with an increasing sense of urgency:

By now, The decks were full of scrambling men and women. I saw no fighting but I heard tell of it…. I noticed that they were putting off women and children in lifeboats …. On deck, the water was pretty close up to the boat deck. There was a great scramble aft, and how poor Phillips worked through it I don't know. … Then came the Captain's voice: "Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it's every man for himself. You can look out for yourselves. I release you. That's the way of it at this kind of a time. Every man for himself."

I looked out. The boat deck was awash. Phillips clung on sending and sending. He clung on for about ten minutes or maybe fifteen minutes after the Captain had released him. The water was then coming into our cabin. . …He was a brave man. I learned to love him that night and I suddenly felt for him a great reverence to see him standing there sticking to his work while everybody else was raging about. I will never live to forget the work of Phillips for the last awful fifteen minutes…. [A fight took place between crewmen over lifebelts, yet….] From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don't know what. Then there was "Autumn." Phillips ran aft and that was the last I ever saw of him alive.

I went to the place I had seen the collapsible boat on the boat deck, and to my surprise I saw the boat and the men still trying to push it off. I guess there wasn't a sailor in the crowd. They couldn't do it. I went up to them and was just lending a hand when a large wave came awash of the deck. The big wave carried the boat off. I had hold of an oarlock and I went off with it. The next I knew I was in the boat. ... There were men all around me -- hundreds of them. The sea was dotted with them, all depending on their life belts. I felt I simply had to get away from the ship. She was a beautiful sight then. Smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel. There must have been an explosion, but we had heard none. We only saw the big stream of sparks. The ship was gradually turning on her nose -- just like a duck that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind -- to get away from the suction. The band was still playing.

The testimony goes on for a bit and then he comes to this:

I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her after-quarter sticking straight up in the air, began to settle – slowly. …I was very cold. As we floated around on our capsized boat and I kept straining my eyes for a ship's lights, somebody said, "Don't the rest of you think we ought to pray?" The man who made the suggestion asked what the religion of the others was. Each man called out his religion. One was a Catholic, one a Methodist, one a Presbyterian. It was decided the most appropriate prayer for all was the Lord's Prayer. We spoke it over in chorus with the man who first suggested that we pray as the leader....I saw some lights off in the distance and knew a steamboat was coming to our aid. I didn't care what happened. I just lay and gasped when I could and felt the pain in my feet. At last the Carpathia was alongside and the people were being taken up a rope ladder.

I don’t plan to add much to Bride’s powerful words, and please forgive me for including so many of them. Something about this testimony feels sermon enough for this anniversary day, and its not just that famous courage of the band that played on, nor of the wireless messenger staying at his post after the captain released him to every man for himself, nor the sheer will to stay alive amidst such an awesome and terrifying ordeal. The scene that night surely saw more than its share of both selfishness and sacrifice. In the midst of it all though, I find something especially beautiful about the story of the wireless distress signals, and also those prayers shared amidst those surviving strangers. It’s something that speaks to an abiding sense of faith, hope and love despite those 1500 souls that drowned, 100 years ago today.

The writer, Daniel Mendelsohn, put it this way in an interview for the Huffington Post: “Yeah, I think there's an idea that the Titanic itself is a kind -- in a funny way…a hero of this mythic story. You know, we go to Greek plays to watch great heroes like Oedipus, who everyone thinks has all the answers, powerful, strong, accomplished, fall apart. That's why we go to see these dramas. It is still we why we go to see "Death of a Salesman"... And the Titanic itself looks like one of these heroes. It's wonderful, impregnable, unsinkable. It seems to have it all. And then we get a certain kind of funny pleasure from watching a drama in which something beautiful disintegrates.”

I wonder if this why we come to church as well, if this is why we sing praise to and bear witness to a savior whose beauty disintegrated on a cross. I wonder if this is why we still sing out our own distress signals -- ‘Hosanna! Save us we beseech thee!’ -- for we know we cannot save ourselves, and we can only sometimes save each other. Save us, God, and let us give thanks for your eternal name and for the peace that comes us through our beautifully disintegrated though now risen lord and savior Jesus Christ. Through him, in the words of the Thomas Dorsey gospel song we’re about to sing, we trust that God will make a way somehow. Through him, we learn to pray and keep praying after our last distress signal has gone out. Save us, God. Save our souls, indeed!

In the end, all of us, no matter our religion, are looking for salvation, aren’t we? Salvation from our fears, salvation from loneliness, salvation from our death and perhaps more than anything, we seek salvation from our lesser selves that might otherwise try to convince us that that we only have to answer to ourselves, that we have no obligation, no responsibility to a greater good or a higher power. Far from some once and for all event that assures us we are heaven bound, salvation may well be a more gradual process, worked out in fear and trembling, as Paul would say, worked out in daily opportunities and choices. One could say we are saved every time we are attentive to the gifts of God’s grace and presence throughout whatever joys and trials of life and death. For we know, we sing, we believe, even through death of loved ones, even through the death of heroes, even through our gravest danger, distress, and doubt that, somehow, earth and heaven are still filled with God’s indissoluble beauty, with God’s unconditional love, with God’s unsinkable glory!

And so, may the dearly departed rest in peace. And a for the rest of us, we can sing it with Mary Lou: Hosanna. Hosanna in the Highest! Relying on God’s mercy and peace, we can say it with Harold Bride, for at some level we are all in the same boat! C.Q.D.! S.O.S.! Save our ship! Save our souls! Not once and for all, but every day and every hour. And in all things, let us give thanks to the Lord, for God is good and God’s steadfast love endures forever! Amen.

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