“We’re in This Together” Colchester Federated Church,  May 26, 2019 (Acts 16:9-15) Sixth Sunday after Easter

In this morning’s story from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about some travels of Paul and his companions.  After his conversion on the Road to Damascus, Paul begins his work as the Apostle to the Gentiles.  Again we read that Paul experiences a vision.  In this vision it’s not Jesus himself who speaks to Paul or Paul seeing a brilliant light from heaven that blinds him for days.  This vision is a man from Macedonia who comes to Paul during the night.  The man urges Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”[1]  Paul believes that the vision comes from God who is calling him and his friends to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel to the people of Macedonia.  So Paul sails to that region, eventually landing in Philippi, a Roman colony.

Paul and his companions stay in Philippi for a few days.  On the Sabbath they go down to the riverbank thinking that this may be a place for prayer.  They sit down and begin to talk with the women who had gathered at the river.  Among those women was Lydia.  Lydia was a Gentile and a dealer in purple cloth, a businesswoman dealing in a luxury good.  We can understand Lydia as independent and successful; she probably had a high socio-economic status considering what her business dealings entailed.  Lydia’s running her own household, making her way alone in a man’s world.  Though she comes to worship at that river because it seems that she’s longing for something more in her life, something that is beyond the success in the business world that she’s already achieving.  Through her encounter with Paul, Lydia is transformed.  God enabled her to embrace Paul’s message.  She asks Paul and his friends to baptize her entire household.  Lydia even goes a step further, extending hospitality to Paul and his friends by inviting them to stay at her house as they continue to proclaim the Good News in Macedonia.

As we hear today’s story, we must remember that Paul was supposed to go to Macedonia to answer a man’s plea in his vision.  Instead, Paul encounters an independent, successful businesswoman who had been seeking God all along.  Lydia’s longing met with God’s grace.  After her baptism into the faith and family of Jesus Christ, she offers Christian hospitality.  Once again, God defies our expectations.[2]

It ends up that we need one another.  This is a story about trusting God and God defying our expectations.  It’s also a story about the power of community, a reminder that we are in this life together.  Lydia had been waiting for Paul to come along (though she didn’t even know that!) in order for her to hear about Jesus and begin new life in his name.  Paul needed Lydia in order to have a place to stay while visiting an unfamiliar land, a home base to continue his work of spreading the Gospel in Macedonia.  Because of Lydia’s hospitality, and yes, because of her success in life, she was able to provide resources that helped Paul and his friends carry on their mission.  It shows that we can often do more together than we ever can alone.

We also remember that tomorrow is Memorial Day—a day when we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  My grandfather always taught us that Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. veterans while Memorial Day honors those who died during their military service.  We honor people who were sent to places many of us would not choose to go, people who didn’t return home to their loved ones.

A moving story we can contemplate for Memorial Day is the story of the Four Chaplains, sometimes referred to as the “Immortal Chaplains” or the “Dorchester Chaplains.”  In 1943 (during World War II), there was an Army Transport Ship called the Dorchester that was carrying 902 servicemen, merchant seamen, and civilian workers across the frigid waters off the coast of Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland.  The Captain of the Dorchester, Hans Danielsen, was concerned about the trip because German U-boats were constantly prowling those waters and several ships had already been sunk along this route.  So the Captain ordered everyone on board to sleep fully clothed and in their life jackets just in case disaster struck.  And it did on February 3.

A German U-boat spotted the Dorchester and fired three torpedoes.  One of them hit the starboard side, far below the water line.  The ship quickly took on water and began to sink.  Captain Danielsen gave the order to abandon ship.  There were three Coast Guard cutters that had been accompanying the Dorchester so some of the people on board those ships were able to rescue the survivors.  Meanwhile aboard the Dorchester, panic ensued as the blast had killed many people and others were attempting to save themselves—jumping into lifeboats and sometimes even capsizing them because of overcrowding.  This chaos was happening during a freezing night with freezing water pouring into the ship.  So we can imagine how desperate the situation was for the people on board that sinking ship as all was lost for many of them.

Yet during this chaos, there were four people who brought a sense of calm and light in the midst of the darkness.  They were four Army Chaplains named Lt. George L. Fox (a Methodist Minister), Lt. Alexander D. Goode (a Jewish Rabbi), Lt. John P. Washington (a Roman Catholic Priest), and Lt. Clark V. Poling (a Dutch Reformed Minister.)  Those four Chaplains spread out among those on board—trying to calm the frightened, tend the wounded, and guide those who became disoriented.  They were preaching courage in the chaos.  Eventually the Chaplains removed their own lifejackets and gave them to others when it was clear that there were no more lifejackets to go around.

As the Dorchester sank into those icy waters, survivors recall seeing the Four Chaplains with arms linked, and their voices raised in the night—offering prayers.  Prayers that could be heard in Hebrew, Latin, and English for those who were fighting for their lives.  In the end, of the 902 people aboard the Dorchester only 230 survived.  The nation was stunned, though word of the valor of the Four Chaplains spread and their families later received both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart to honor their sacrifices.  According to The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation (the main source of this story), “Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed life’s ultimate test. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.”[3]

This Memorial Day it’s important to remember that we are in this together.  And we can work with people across our differences and still be there for one another.  As the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation rightly states, “The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.”  By linking arms together and praying the prayers from their own respective religious traditions, it was a sign for everyone that we can honor what makes us unique.

We can continue to work together to minister to everyone in their time of need.  Because as the Jewish Community Center explains the story, “This event was the catalyst for Americans to embrace interfaith understanding. Until the Dorchester, there was no mention in print of Catholics, Protestants and Jews working together in this manner, especially in prayer.”[4]

When I was serving in Lexington, I was Co-President of the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association (LICA) for two years.  We had close to thirty members—clergy who were Christian (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox), Jewish (Reform and Conservative), Hindu, and Muslim.  When we would lead events together, we would often end by linking arms with each other and singing.  Or we would end with a Benediction said in both English and Hebrew.  Throughout our services people could hear prayers in multiple languages, prayers said from our respective religious traditions.  People from the community would thank me for organizing some of these events and would say something like, “It means so much to see you all up there together.”  We met monthly and worked together as a sign that we could be unique in our differences and united for the common good.  Leading LICA was some of the most important and life-giving work I’ve experienced in my ministry because interfaith understandings and relationships are vital in our world.  We modeled that for our community.

So I was thinking of the story of the Four Chaplains this week because it’s Memorial Day weekend, because of my own interfaith work, and because of the mosque that was just intentionally set on fire in New Haven.  As heinous as that act (especially during Ramadan) is to witness, it has been heartening to see the outpouring of support from people across faith traditions.  It was heartening to see images of clergy who are serving in New Haven standing together in solidarity.  As a sign that hate has no home here.  As a sign that we’re in this together.

The legacy of the Four Chaplains lives on when we embrace people of other faiths and find ways to stand together and with common purpose.  In our Christian tradition we can see examples over and again of the power of community, the power of standing together.  The reality remains that we can do so much more together than we ever can alone.  Because we’re in this, together.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Acts 16:9, Common English Bible.
[2] Ronald Cole-Turner, Commentary on Acts 16:9-15, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2.
[3] “The Story,” The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, 2015, http://www.fourchaplains.org/the-saga-of-the-four-chaplains/
[4] “Story of the Four Chaplain,” JCC Association of North America, https://jcca.org/what-we-do/jwb/story-of-the-four-chaplains/