‘For whom do the bells toll’ – Remembering the March 11 great earthquake

Posted on April 15, 2011 by Franklin Ishida

The following is a printed sermon offered in the April issue of “The Lutheran,” monthly newspaper of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church
By The Rev. Sumiyuki Watanabe
President, JELC


“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)

Long ago, towering over a town, was the tower of the church with its large bells. It was said if there was a good gift on Christmas Eve, God would cause beautiful bell sounds to be heard there. But no one had heard such sounds in a long time.

In a distant village lived the brothers Pedro and Antonio. Their grandfather told them the story of this church’s bells and this inspired them to want to attend worship there.

Christmas Eve arrived that year. Pedro and Antonio really wanted to go to church, and secretly left to go. It was a cold and snowy day. The brothers took the little bit of money they had saved and held hands as they struggled on their way to church. As darkness fell, the two saw a woman collapsed on the whitened road. She was already cold, and the brothers struggled to wake her. Their efforts paid off as the woman regained consciousness. But Pedro, realizing they couldn’t leave the women there, told Antonio: “You go ahead to church.” He took a silver coin out of his pocket, what he had brought as an offering for church, and gave it to Antonio. He told his brother to take this and quietly leave it at the altar. The younger brother hurried off to town as Pedro watched him go off, shedding tears and saddened he couldn’t go to church with the anticipation he had had.

The Christmas Eve service was wonderful. Antonio looked around the church in awe. The pastor’s sermon came to an end, and the people lined up before the altar to bring their offerings. One rich man placed a precious jewel in the offering. Another put in lots of money. The king himself offered his own crown. Then they all bent their ears to listen. But the only sound was that of the wind; there was no sound of bells. “The bells didn’t ring this year,” they all murmured. At that moment, the sound of the bells suddenly resounded. All the people looked toward the altar. There stood Antonio, who had offered that one silver coin, looking up as he listened to the ringing bells. (From Raymond M. Alden, “Why the Chimes Rang)

This past March 11, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan’s coast, the so-called Tohoku-Kanto Great Earthquake. We offer our heartfelt prayers for those who lost loved ones, that God’s mercy and peace may fill them. For those who survived and for those living in the disaster area, we pray for their health and that God may embrace them with comfort; and that they can return to some normalcy in their lives.

This disaster was unprecedented in magnitude. We have seen images in the media every moment along the way. As we watch, we feel helpless in the face of the power of nature, and recall the many paths we have trod in human history.

With this sudden disaster, we are left wondering what we, as humans, can do. We wince at our helplessness. But we face the words: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Behind these words is the understanding that while there is a limit to what is human, we proclaim there is no end with God.

In the story from Why the Chimes Ring, the brothers quietly offered their small offering at the altar. This happened even as the one brother couldn’t be there because he was helping that woman who had collapsed in the middle of a snow storm. God certainly looked upon each of these brothers with great pleasure. And because of this, the church bells resounded with renewed beauty.

There are those who have lost loving parents, children, siblings, relatives, friends; those who lost homes and endure the cold of the nights; those who have little hope for the future, lamenting and crying out in despair. All the more reason to remember “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” the one brings us courage and strength and hope for tomorrow. And for each survivor, for all of us who are starting to engage in relief activities, the bells of God’s salvation ring, just as they did for Pedro and Antonio. Let us walk with courage and hope with God in this difficult road ahead. Surrounding us stand the Christians of the world, and each individual Lutheran member everywhere. Their prayers are with us as we give thanks to God, and walk forward in our efforts to bring relief to all those who have survived this disaster.