Many years ago while I served at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, S.C., I signed up to serve as a volunteer fireman. I do not remember exactly why I chose to serve as a fireman... was it because something about being a fireman was so attractive to me? Was it because I had met a fireman in my past who had made such an impression on me? I had an uncle who was a fireman back in Ghana; he was a very good man and exceptionally kind to my brother and me when we were in boarding school. As good as my uncle was, I was clear in my mind that I didn’t sign up to be a fireman because of how I felt about my relationship with him.
Thinking about a fireman or firewoman, I realize that there’s some universal quality to the job description of one. It is important to recognize that in just about any part of the world, a fire truck may be painted red, but the universal trait or responsibility of any fireman or firewoman is to save lives - to risk their own lives in saving the lives of the vulnerable. Simply said, put out fires, save property, and save lives.
Although I have seen many firemen and women over time, I had never seen any fireman or firewoman in action until September 11, 2001. At that time, I had been in the United States for about 10 months, and to see these firemen and women rush into the World Trade Center buildings to save lives - as many lives as they possibly could - without simultaneously dwelling on the danger to their own lives was the most powerful part of the entire story to me. In fact, an iconic picture is one of a fireman named Bob Beckwith, who is standing with former President George Bush on the heap of rubble. It is for me, an iconic representation of the story of September 11th.
There’s a story of a chaplain who visited a patient in hospice. During the course of their conversation, the chaplain learned that the man had been a fireman for over forty years. After thanking the gentleman for his service, he then asked him, “Have you ever tried to draw a link, any connection between your career as a fireman and your faith?” It was as if the man had reflected on that question long before the chaplain asked, as he had an answer already prepared for him. Within a second, the fireman simply responded, “Lifesaver,” which is something had he been all through his career. The fireman or firewoman saves lives, but in the process of doing so, they offer their lives as a ransom for the one - anyone - who may be in danger of being burned by fire.
Thinking about the word 'lifesaver' reminds me of what these next couple of days mean for you and me. Our stories can be eerily similar to that of being trapped in a burning house, and our only prayer has been one of a fireman or woman walking through the fire to redeem us, restore us, and save us. Come to think of it, Jesus Christ is our Fireman. Listen to Paul: “But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Hear also what John says about the Fireman: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The Fireman lays down his life for his sinner friends simply because of his love for them.
The fireman you know, the one who lives down the street from you - yes, even the one you do not know - he also proves his love for you by walking into the raging fire for your sake, while you walk away from the inferno. Notice that the fireman or woman doesn’t even ask about those people that he or she is to save from this extreme danger - whether they are good or bad people, or whether they are Republicans, or Democrats, or any of the other categories with which we saddle our sad, poor selves. The fireman or woman simply walks into harm's way just so they can save those who are in danger. In Christ Jesus, I see a Fireman who, as a servant, offers His life for the sake of all lives.
In the book of Isaiah are four Servant Songs. One of the Songs, specifically the Second Servant Song, talks about the Servant who will restore God’s people. Remember, God’s people were in exile, and the prophet not only talks about their restoration and that the Servant will bring comfort to God’s people, but the Servant will make possible the redemption of the Gentiles as well. Hear the prophet:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”
The prophet makes a bold claim that God’s salvation will be brought to all people. In Christ Jesus, therefore, we experience God’s light that has been brought to the world, for in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles are made one. In Christ, we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. In Christ, we see the fulfillment of God’s single purpose of restoring all people to God’s self. In Christ, we see God’s salvation reach the ends of the earth.
In Christ, we see the example of a fireman who walks into danger, not necessarily because of a paycheck or for any particular reward, but because of the unique duty that he or she carries, to save lives - yours and mine.
It is possible that you may not have considered a connection between your career and your faith, and that is perfectly fine. However, I’d like to share with you that you may not be a fireman but your career - whatever it is that you do - has some connection with your faith. It is only when you recognize the self-sacrificial nature of it that can you appreciate what it means to save lives with your life.
One unique quality I have come to embrace about firemen and firewomen is that they hardly ever consider themselves heroes, not even after a heroic act. "Who am I that I would be considered a hero?" they ask.
In the hymn My Song Is Love Unknown, Samuel Crossman asked a similar question:
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die?
Tonight, and throughout the rest of the Holy Week, I invite you to join us in worship. Join and hear Christ - the Fireman - prove the ultimate love for all people... a love that will save my life, and yours.