As we gather this morning in the beautiful Church of St. Elizabeth, please permit me to express on behalf of the Diocese of Wilmington, of our Bishop Emeritus, Bishop Malooly, the priests, religious and lay faithful, our great gratitude for your commitment as law enforcement personnel, firefighters and military personnel in keeping us safe, protecting and saving lives and property and helping to create a community wherein we can live as a human family. There are so many times when we can take your dedication and professionalism for granted. On a day such as this in which we gather to give thanks to God in the Eucharist, we begin by saying thank you to yourselves. Our words of gratitude are only equaled by our fervent prayer that you and all first responders be kept safe.
As you come from the station house where your precinct is located or the firehouse where you gather and await the next alarm, I invite you to reflect for a few moments on another type of house. The house upon which I would like to reflect is not built of bricks and cement, but rather it is the house of our lives. I invite us to reflect upon the house to which we are invited to enter and secondly to reflect upon our own house.
Let us begin by reflecting upon the house which we are invited to enter. Our first reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is admittedly not one of Paul’s most reasoned out presentations on faith. Scripture scholars tell us that this letter preceded his letter to the Romans and this was his earlier attempt at presenting how we are saved not by anything we have done to justify ourselves but by the saving act of God becoming human and offering himself on the cross for our salvation. Nonetheless, the wonderful thing about this letter was not occasioned by some theoretical problem, but he is clearly agitated over the news that some people are believing that they can be saved by following Jewish laws. And while Paul’s concern may not seem to be too relevant today, it really comes down to people believing that they do not need God. It comes down to people believing that we are the sole determinants of our fate. And this, my dear friends, is something that started with Adam and Eve who thought that, in eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would be equal to God, and is a temptation that continues down to us as descendants of the first man and woman.
And so how do we enter this house? We simply choose to enter. And we choose to enter by looking to God as the one who gives life and upon whom all life depends. As first responders, you certainly give yourselves totally to doing what needs to be done in helping and saving others. And on many, many occasions your efforts will save lives. As you do this, however, my prayer for you is that you know that you are not alone. My prayer for you is that you look to God for strength when you are tired. That you look to God for courage when you are afraid. That you look to God for direction when you are confused. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (3:20), we read: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory.” May we choose to enter the house of faith in the one “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.”
And secondly, what about our own houses? Since being blessed by the call to serve the church in Wilmington and moving down from my native Long Island, I have become very conscious of how important the clergy, diocesan staff and the faithful people of this grace-filled diocese are to me. I realize that there are so many gifts and talents that people have, many of which I do not have, that are needed to build up the kingdom of God. In a word, I have come to understand how important it is to have these people in the house of my life. The importance of first responders having certain people in the house of their lives was exemplified for me recently as I read a book that was written by a retired Battalion Chief of the Fire Department of New York named Joe Pfeiffer. I first met Joe many years ago when he and I were in the seminary together. Joe left the seminary prior to ordination and joined the FDNY. On September 11, 2001, he and his company were the first firemen on the scene of the World Trade Center. In his book, Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11, Joe describes the chaotic, unimaginable situation that confronted the world on that Tuesday morning. Nothing in his training could ever have prepared him for what he and his fellow firefighters were now facing. In addition to describing the scene, Joe also recounts how important other members of the department were for him. One of the men he writes about is District 1 Deputy Chief Peter Hayden. Joe writes the following: “I was glad to see him. Hayden was the quintessential FDNY firefighter … We worked together for many years and knew how each other thought. Pete was a person of action and always wanted things to be done quickly. I was more analytical and could anticipate the outcomes of our decisions. Together, we had a half century of experience in the FDNY and were both very familiar with the WTC complex.” While his terse description of how he felt when he first saw Chief Hayden is very brief, it exemplifies how important other first responders are to your mission. Let us be grateful for the unique skills that each person contributes to the work with which you are charged.
I also urge you, however, to also know that the need to allow others into the house of your life does not pertain only to your professional life, but pertains to your personal life also. Your work as first responders is very stressful. In addition to the hours that you work, you face demanding situations that take a toll on you physically, emotionally and spiritually. And it is for this reason, that it is so important that you know that you are not alone. It is so important that you invite people into your life who are trained to help face the challenges of your chosen calling. Please look after yourself, your health and well-being. Many times the first step is knowing that I need not do things alone. And then open the door and invite someone in. May you never hesitate to open the door of your life to people who will help you to be the person created you to be.
In Joshua 24:15, Joshua, the successor of Moses, tells the Israelites: “[C]hoose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” May you, as first responders, be ever strengthened in serving the needs of others. May you know that in serving these needs, you are following the example of Joshua and serving the LORD. May God Bless you and watch over you.