Where do you come from? What do you consider your hometown? Do you have one? Some of us, I know, have lived here in Cohasset for generations, a wonderful and unusual rootedness in the restless, modern world. Others of us came here from another place, perhaps because of work, or family. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, do you have a place that really feels like home, to you, where you can breathe easy, where you understand the way they do things, where people remember you, the way you were before you figured out who you were? In this season of Epiphany, we are looking at the ways in which Jesus is revealed to us, giving us a different way to be with each other, and with God. Today, in our big questions, we think about whereJesus comes to us, and where He is calling us to be.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes to humanity, He is born among us, in a specific place and time. Though he was born in Bethlehem, His parents were really only traveling through, and though He spent His earliest years in Egypt, again, that was a temporary stop on the way for them. Jesus has a hometown, the place where He did most of His growing up, where He was surrounded by an extended family, where He learned a trade among the masters of His craft. He is from Nazareth, in Galilee. A made-fun-of place, it would seem, given that, later, one of the new disciples will ask, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Perhaps it was the Appalachia of the ancient Near East. In Canada, that place was Newfoundland, where, it must be admitted, one branch of my family lives. But in the rest of the country, we said that a Newfoundland attaché case was a plastic grocery bag. Maybe it was that reputation, in Nazareth, that made them unwilling to believe that this hometown boy could amount to anything, in the wider world, and accused Him of putting on airs, making Himself out to be something special. It may have been that place, with its history and identity, but it would be the same anywhere, I think—wherever He appeared, His coming among us, into the places of our everyday lives, was too much for us to comprehend. When He began to speak the truth about who He was, He was thrown out of his home. When He kept speaking the truth about who He was, and who we are, we threw Him out of the world.
Jesus has to go into that most difficult of places, the crucible of human judgment, that hates most what is nearest, though it doesn’t mind hating what is far away and strange, either. He comes into it knowing He will be despised and rejected, taking His place alongside everyone we bully and shame. From the prophet Jeremiah we hear about the absolute demand of that kind of call from God: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you.” As we follow Jesus, we will find ourselves called into hard places, to do things we didn’t think we could do.
Sometimes venturing into new and even difficult territory is an adventure, an exciting challenge. Tonight, many of us will be watching as football stars converge on this place, a stadium in Atlanta. The work of years, in some ways, of lifetimes, has gone into getting them to this place. It’s a game about covering distance, buying it, with the punishment of a body, or the wiles of a mind, all to get the ball to where it needs to be. This space of a few yards will become a crucible, for their careers, because we all agree on the rules of the game.
But, for a moment this morning, let’s think about a different kind of place. A cold night, on the North Atlantic. Today is the 76thanniversary of the death of four chaplains from the Second World War, who left their homes and offered the best of themselves in the most difficult place. Perhaps you have heard their story. The four men came from all around the country, and each served their own religious tradition as clergy: Alexander Goode, from Brooklyn, NY, was a rabbi and the son of a rabbi, George Fox was a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania who studied at my alma mater, BU STH, John Washington was a Catholic priest from New Jersey, and Clark Poling, from Columbus, Ohio was a Dutch Reformed pastor—he was also a second-generation clergyman. Each of them joined the army and they became friends in the chaplain training program at Harvard. They were deployed on several different assignments but at the beginning of 1943 they were happy to be reunited, serving together on the SS Dorchester, a Troop Transport ship taking almost 1,000 soldiers on the dangerous journey through U-Boat patrolled waters from Newfoundland to a base in Greenland. The ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic early in the morning of Feb. 3, 1943. Hundreds of those on board were killed instantly, and as the boat was sinking, the chaplains were working to load people into lifeboats. They prayed and comforted those facing the jump into the water. One man who survived said that as he was getting into a lifeboat he called out in a panic that he had no gloves and Rabbi Goode said, “Here, take mine, I’ve got a second pair.” The man thought about it later and realized that, of course that wasn’t true—there was no second pair, that was just to make him feel better. When the remaining supply of lifejackets ran out, the chaplains took theirs off and gave them to the next men in line. Another soldier who lived through that night, John Ladd, has said that “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Their courage and selflessness helped over 200 people to survive. As those on the lifeboats watched the boat finally sink, the four men met the water with their arms linked together, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant, joined in prayer, English mingling with Hebrew and Latin, asking for mercy and peace. They could be heard singing the hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”
They were where they needed to be, where they were called to be. Not staying in a safer place because of their rank. Not keeping only to those they were supposed to be caring for, their individual denominations or communities. Giving up their futures, giving up their place on lifeboats, for others. This was their crucible, because they agreed, between them, to give up the rules of any human game, and see the landscape from God’s perspective. Who needs to be where, in God’s eyes? Who needs to make it home, to get to safety?
The four chaplains knew where the real safety was to be found, and they decided to seek it only there. They made the psalm’s old words live:
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.
As the four chaplains taught us, as Jesus showed us, God is our place of refuge, our safety and strength. God is our home. When we know that, we can take that place everywhere with us. And when we make our home in God, we can open the doors to everyone.