In July of 1967, a 24-year-old Navy pilot named Larry Duthie found himself in the last place a Navy pilot wanted to be: on the ground, injured, in the middle of a jungle about 20 miles from Hanoi, waiting to be captured.
He had been part of a squad sent to destroy a bridge, and he’d been flying a jet with 5,500 pounds of bombs and extra fuel. During the flight, his plane was hit by North Vietnamese missiles. Before it exploded, Lt. Larry Duthie ejected.
When he landed, he shattered his knee. Larry Duthie could do nothing but cower in the jungle in pain, clutching his dog tags, reciting over and over again his name, rank and serial number – all he was required to say to the men he was sure would soon be taking him prisoner.
But they never came.
Instead, American rescue helicopters flew into the area to try and retrieve him. As Larry Duthie hid in the jungle, the North Vietnamese fought aggressively with missiles and antiaircraft guns to prevent the rescue. The Americans fought back, with jets and helicopters. Four Navy pilots died in the rescue attempt. In the end, after more than a day of fighting, the Americans prevailed. Lt. Larry Duthie was saved. He eventually made it home.
Last Thursday, he was at Arlington National Cemetery as the Pentagon buried one coffin containing what had finally been recovered: the few remains of the four pilots. Family and friends gathered. Horses pulled the flag-draped coffin on a caisson. Navy jets flew in formation overhead. And Larry Duthie, now 70, remembered the men who had saved him 46 years ago.
“They were unbelievably brave,” he told the Washington Post.
One of the men, William Jackson, had a nine-year-old son named Glenn who still recalls the July day his pastor came to the house to tell his mother what had happened. He remembers his mother sent him outside to play.
Thursday, that nine-year-old boy, now 54, was there to honor his father and the other men. He also met, for the first time, Larry Duthie. “All four were heroes,” Glenn said. “You think about what they did. For basically somebody that they really didn’t know. All they knew was that he was another Navy pilot and that he needed help.”
That kind of heroism was repeated countless times during the Vietnam War, and in so many wars before and since. We saw it on 9/11. We saw it in Boston. It happens today. Heroes who will do everything, who will give everything, for someone in need.
I hear stories of men like that, and can’t help but be reminded of Christ.
His life was the greatest rescue mission every undertaken—the mission to save all of us.
And in today’s gospel, Jesus told his apostles that it wouldn’t end after he was gone.
“The Advocate,” he said, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” He reassured them, and us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
They are words we need to hear. So often in life, it is tempting to think that God has abandoned us. How many times do we cower in the jungle of our daily lives, anxiously waiting?
How often do we dread that phone call in the night? That letter in the mail? How often do we find ourselves worrying about a future we can’t see, a decision we can’t come to, a choice that seems impossible? How often do we just stop trusting God?
But this gospel tells us otherwise: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
Christ’s peace is with us —through everything.
God’s mercy is with us.
The Holy Spirit’s comfort is with us.
Dare to trust in God. He is with us.
This gospel comes just a few days before we mark Ascension Thursday. In a way, this prepares us for that event. Easter seems to be fading. The flowers on the altar have wilted. The Paschal Candle is a little shorter. We’re transitioning in a few weeks back into Ordinary Time. A season is drawing to a close.
But: that doesn’t mean it’s ending. The great promise of Easter lives on.
When we feel forgotten, or helpless, or worried, we need to remember Christ’s words—his gift of peace, of an Advocate, of a guide who will look for us when we are lost, who will console us when we are despairing, who will be there when we feel alone or abandoned.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
Be assured of this beautiful fact: we are not alone.
No matter how thick the jungle or how dark the skies…God will find us.
No matter how worried we might be…God will find us.
In our uncertainty. In our pain. In our fear. He will find us.
Christ’s words tell us: we are never forgotten or abandoned.
The great rescue mission of our salvation continues.