NO GREATER LOVE
9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
(John 15:9-17, NRSV)
Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
(The following was taken mostly verbatim from www.four chaplains.org.) It was known as Torpedo Junction, the [German] U-Boat infested, icy water of the North Atlantic during World War II. On January 23, 1943, the [U.S. Army Transport] DORCHESTER, an old coastal steamer quickly pressed into military service, left New York Harbor bound for Greenland. The… DORCHESTER was escorted by three Coast Guard cutters. Two patrolled the flanks; the third, the TAMPA, was 3000 yards out front.
Most of the men were seasick and green with nausea. The weather was bitterly cold with gale-force winds.
Ice began building up on the decks, slowing the…DORCHESTER to ten knots. Moving among them were four Army Chaplains: George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington. The chaplains talked with and listened to the men—soothing apprehensions, offering encouragement, sharing jokes. By their concern and their camaraderie with the men and one another, they brought solace.
On February 2, 1943, the TAMPA’s sonar detected the presence of a submarine; she dropped back and swept the periphery of the convoy, but failed to find the submarine’s position. That evening, the TAMPA returned to the patrol area up front, and the other ships followed. The captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing, with lifejackets close at hand. They were only 150 miles from Greenland. With daylight, there would be air cover from the American base.
It was just after midnight on February 3, 1943. An enemy submarine fired a torpedo toward the U.S.A.T.
DORCHESTER’s aging flank. The missile exploded in the boiler room, destroying the electric supply and releasing suffocating clouds of steam and ammonia …. Many on board died instantly; some were trapped below deck. Others, jolted from their bunks, groped and stumbled their way to the decks of the stricken vessel. Taking on water rapidly, the ship began listing to starboard. Overcrowded lifeboats capsized; rafts drifted away before anyone could reach them. Men clung to the rails, frozen with fear, unable to let go and plunge into the dark, churning water far below.
The testimony of survivors tells us that the sole order and the only fragment of hope in this chaos came from the four chaplains, who calmly guided men to their boat stations. They opened a storage locker and distributed lifejackets. Then they coaxed men, frozen with fear, over the side. Soon the supply of lifejackets was exhausted. Several survivors report watching in awe as the four chaplains either gave away or forced upon other young men their own lifejackets. These four [servants] of God had given away their only means of saving themselves in order to save others.
The chaplains gathered together, and led the men around them in a prayer and a hymn. They linked their arms together as the slant of the deck became severe. And just that way, with their arms linked in brotherhood and their heads bowed in prayer, they sank beneath the waves.
Who were these four men, who in heroic sacrifice gave away their lifejackets? George L. Fox, the oldest of the four, knew all about war. Lying about his age in
1917, he enlisted in the Army as a medical corps assistant. He won a Silver Star for rescuing a wounded soldier from a battlefield filled with poison gas…and the Purple Heart for wounds. A resident of Vermont, he was a successful accountant and family man when he heard God’s call to the ministry. Fox went back to school and later was ordained [a Methodist minister]. When war came, he once again enlisted, telling his wife, ‘I’ve got to go. I know from experience what our boys are about to face. They need me.’ Fox began active duty on August 8, 1942.
Alexander D. Goode was both an outstanding athlete and scholar. Following in his father’s footsteps, this young man known for his laughter and love of life, became a rabbi. While studying for his calling, he joined the National Guard and kept up an active membership. The return of the body of the Unknown Soldier had a profound effect on Goode. He attended the ceremonies, choosing to walk the thirty miles rather than drive or take a bus, because he thought it showed more respect. Goode married his childhood sweetheart and was serving a synagogue in York, Pennsylvania, when World War II broke out. He [began] active duty [on] August 9, 1942.
Clark V. Poling was the youngest of the four chaplains and the seventh generation in his family to be ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church. When war came, he was anxious to go, but not as a chaplain. ‘I’m not going to hide behind the church in some safe office out of the firing line,’ he told his father. The elder Poling replied, ‘Don’t you know that chaplains have the highest mortality rate of all? As a chaplain you’ll have the best chance in the world to be killed. You just can’t carry a gun to kill anyone yourself.’ So Clark Poling left his pastorate in Schenectady, New York, and enlisted as a chaplain. Just before he left for active duty, Clark asked his father to pray for him – ‘not for my safe return, that wouldn’t be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty ... and have the strength, courage, and understanding. Just pray that I shall be adequate.’ Poling began active duty on June 10, 1942.
John P. Washington grew up poor, scrappy, and determined in the toughest section of Newark, New Jersey. One of nine children born to an Irish immigrant family, he was blessed with a sunny disposition, a beautiful singing voice, and a love for music. He also loved a good fight, and was leader of the South Twelfth Street gang when he was called to the priesthood. He played ball with the boys of the parish, organized sports teams and, when war came along, went with his ‘boys’ into the Army. He began active duty on May 9, 1942. His wonderful voice, raised in song and prayer to comfort those around him, could be heard until his final moments on February 3, 1943.
Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Most of us will never face a life and death situation. However, we never know when we might be called upon to act courageously and possibly lay down our lives for the sake of others.
This past April 30, another armed gunman burst into another American classroom to inflict violence and death upon innocent students and staff. This time the shooting took place at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It was the last day of classes and students in the Kennedy building were making 10-minute presentations about their semester’s research. At around 5:30 PM, the suspected gunman entered the classroom and opened fire with a pistol. Anthropology professor, Adam Johnson, quickly led students to a different door. Johnson held the door as his students fled. Before leaving the room, the professor helped an injured student out the door. With over 60 students in the class, not everyone could quickly exit the room. Panic ensued. As the suspected gunman continued firing, student Riley Howell tackled him while yelling “go, go, go!” to his classmates…giving other students time to escape the room without injury. Howell was shot three times and killed by the gunman. Students who escaped as Howell attacked the shooter credit their classmate’s quick action for saving their lives. As word spread about Howell’s heroism and death, it was learned that he was a Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet, ROTC. He was buried with full military honors and an honor guard on May 5. Over 1,000 people attended Howell's funeral.
Hailed as a hero for knocking the shooter off his feet…Riley Howell was posthumously awarded two of the military’s highest honors, the Purple Heart, awarded to US Armed Services personnel either injured or killed in action, and the Bronze Star, awarded for “heroic or meritorious achievement of service.”
The other student killed in the April 30 attack was Ellis R. Parlier who enrolled in the fall of 2017 to study computer science. His death holds just as much significance as Riley Howell’s death.
Most of us will never be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice that the four chaplains and Riley Howell made, the kind of sacrifice that Jesus mentioned in John 15:13. However, God calls each of us to lay down our lives in service of others in large ways and small. No kind deed is too small to bring glory to God. A life well lived is a life that serves other people in big ways and small, most often without even thinking about it.
Those of us gathered in this sanctuary will in all likelihood never be called upon to literally lay down our lives for the sake of others. And that is one of the reasons we observe Memorial Day, to remember and give thanks for those men and women in our nation’s military who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Carl Sandburg once said. “Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.” May the selfless heroism of Riley Howell and the Four Chaplains serve as an example to us not only on Memorial Sunday, but every day reminding us of Jesus’ words, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” and strangers too. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
May 26, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Most Merciful God,
Today we remember
Those for whom Memorial Day
Is more than a day off of work,
But is, instead, a painful time.
We remember with compassion
Your sons and daughters who have lost their lives in war.
Help us honor their memory
With a sincere pledge to never forget their sacrifice while at the same time working day and night for peaceful solutions.
We pray for the safety of those entering military service,
And weep for the many returning from combat
With wounded bodies,
Or minds sickened by the sight and sounds of war.
Our prayers also extend, O God,
To those who still wait and pray
Day by anxious day
For that precious moment of reunion
With a distant family member, friend, or loved one.
And to others – whose reunion has been sorrowfully delayed
Until that Heavenly homecoming with Christ
In the fullness of time –
We offer the gentle assurance
Of your promise to all believers,
“ Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
This day we remember our own Charlie Morris who is serving on a Navy submarine in the Pacific.
Through Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace we pray. Amen.
(This prayer by Tracy McNeal was adapted from http://gbgm-umc.org/global_news/full_article.cfm?articleid=2495)