“That They Will be One” Colchester Federated Church, May 24, 2020, (John 17:1-11) Seventh Sunday of Easter (**Virtual Worship)

Friends, it’s Memorial Day weekend.  Often our sanctuary is not exactly overflowing this Sunday as many people may go away for the long weekend.  Or in our congregation here at Colchester Federated Church, many folks march in the Memorial Day Parade and line up early.  It may be a hard day—that time honored tradition of the Memorial Day Parade here in our community isn’t happening because it’s still not safe to gather in crowds.

So today called for sharing one of the most moving stories I’ve ever encountered and have shared with our congregation on Memorial Day weekend.  It felt like it was worth sharing again because of the powerful story of love embodied by the Four Chaplains which may help to hear in the midst of this pandemic.  Especially as we face the reality of people in our country and around the world who are getting sick and dying every single day from Covid-19.  We’re living in the midst of difficult days and days that sometimes feel divisive.

Now tomorrow is Memorial Day—a day when we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  My grandfather (who retired as a First Sergeant in the Army) always taught us from a young age 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 this weekend who were sent to places many of us would not choose to go, people who didn’t return home alive 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.  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 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 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 for this sermon), “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.”[1]

This Memorial Day—during a global pandemic—it’s important to remember that we are in this life together.  That we can do far more together than we can alone.  And we can work with people across our differences and still be there for one another.  As the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation 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.”[2]

We remember from our Christian tradition (and from today’s lectionary Gospel text) that Jesus often prayed and taught his followers to pray.  Prayer is unique across religious traditions.  Yet we share the tradition of prayer itself.  Jesus prayed, saying, “I’m praying for them.  Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.”[3]  Jesus prayed for those whom God entrusted to his care, for those who would spread his message of new life and love after his death and resurrection.  He prayed for unity.  And we would do well to remember Jesus’ prayer in these days where so much information is coming our way and sometimes differences of opinion about paths forward.  We won’t all agree all the time about a whole host of ideas.  Though is there a way to be inspired by a story like the Four Chaplains and know that coming together across our differences can be done, and when it’s done it can be so beautiful?  May God continue to bless you and keep you, and remember that though we are physically apart—God is with us and you are not alone.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, 2015, http://fourchaplains.org/four-chaplains/
[2] “Story of the Four Chaplain,” JCC Association of North America, https://jcca.org/what-we-do/jwb/story-of-the-four-chaplains/
[3] John 17:9 and 11, Common English Bible.