All Things to All People – Sermon for First Responders Sunday

 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

It’s not easy being “all things to all people,” but that’s what St. Paul wanted to be. He felt an obligation to preach the gospel in a way that would meet people where they’re at. Being all things to all people, isn’t easy, which might be why Paul was having problems with the Corinthian church! They were too many things, and he was only one person.
This morning we’re taking a moment to give thanks for members of our community who have answered a call to serve. In many ways First Responders, whether police officers, fire fighters, or emergency medical technicians, have to be “all things to all people.” They might respond to help a person experiencing a heart attack in the middle of the night or maybe fetch a cat up a tree. They may sit with a person who is grieving or face a dangerous situation. Whatever the situation, they find themselves in a position of service to others.
Before I go any further with this sermon, I need to give a disclaimer. I’m going to do something I don’t normally do. That is, I’m going to use the reading from 1 Corinthians 9 as a pretext, as a jumping off point, to speak about something that isn’t even hinted at in this letter. So, while I don’t think Paul had First Responders in mind when he wrote this letter, I think there is a word of blessing here for First Responders. So, with this disclaimer, I will apply Paul’s declaration that he is “all things to all people” to our First Responders, who are called upon to serve and protect all the people in the community, whether residents or guests.

To be a First Responder is to take up an honorable calling. Like many young children, I once dreamed of being a First Responder. Some of you may remember Beaver Cleaver’s friend, Gus the fireman. Gus was Beaver’s confidant and hero. I also had a hero to emulate. Long before I ever thought about going into ministry, I wanted to be a Forest Service officer and fight fires in the forests, just like my neighbor Mr. Gray. You see, Mr. Gray was a Fire Control Officer, and he always parked his green Forest Service truck in front of his house just in case he needed to answer the call to go out and fight a fire in the local forests. His truck wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood, and so every once in a while the street would be filled with green trucks rushing off on an assignment. I remember one case when we could see the fire erupting up on the mountain, and then watching as Mr. Gray and other neighbors rushed off and put out the fire before it threatened our community. I also remember him coming home from fires, covered with dirt and smoke. Sometimes his clothes would be covered with the pink of fire retardant dropped from planes. He was my hero!  When he wasn’t fighting fires, his son Don and I would jump into the cab of that green Forest Service Truck to catch a ride to our school, which was a block away from the Forest Service office. Yes, to an eight-year-old boy, this seemed very exciting. I didn’t take up this vocation, but I still give thanks for his service to the community, even long after his passing.
The recent fires in Southern California have reinforced my respect for First Responders who risked their lives to protect a city I once lived in from total destruction. Paul speaks in chapter 9 of making the Gospel “free of charge.” That word about serving without pay, something I don’t do, reminded me that the vast majority of fire personnel in Troy are volunteers. This is amazing considering the size of this community.  We must always give thanks for those who risk their lives to serve and protect our communities.
I don’t remember considering being either a police officer or an EMT. Maybe that’s because I didn’t have a neighbor to model that vocation. When it comes to being a police officer, my lack of interest might be due to my first real encounter with a police officer. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was probably 10 or 11 when I was pulled over by an officer because I was riding my bike on the wrong side of the street. Although I didn’t serve time or pay a fine, I did have to go to the police station and speak with a police sergeant. He warned me about riding my bike recklessly, and I tried to heed his warning from that time on. So, I survived that moment, and a few other encounters with police, to become a chaplain for the Troy Police Department. I’m wearing my chaplain’s garb this morning in solidarity with the department that I have come to respect highly. I know that not every police department is the same. We have seen many reports of police officers across the country acting inappropriately, especially when it comes to minority communities. Some officers don’t seem to understand the principle of being “all things to all people,” but that is not what I have seen here in Troy. The reason why I am a chaplain for this department is that I’ve come to respect its members, starting with the Chief.
I got to know the Troy Police Chief, Gary Mayer, several years ago. We had a number of conversations over breakfast, and we talked about the department and the community. What I have seen is a man committed to the welfare of the entire community, and who makes sure that the department is represented in community organizations, including the Troy-area Interfaith Group. With his encouragement the department helped launch the Troy-area Alliance Against Hate Crimes in partnership with the Troy-area Interfaith Group. So, after I completed my leadership responsibilities with TIG and the Metro Coalition of Congregations, I accepted a position as a volunteer chaplain with the department. I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to serve, but in those moments when I have, I have seen a department committed to both serving and protecting our community. For this we need to give thanks, even if we do not live in this community.
I can’t leave out our EMTs, even if I haven’t had a lot of contact with them. My picture of EMTs comes from TV. I remember watching Emergency as a kid. Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto were paramedics who drove fire trucks not ambulances. But, they did provide emergency services to those in need, and they often saved lives. So, it seemed to me that they were heroes! Of course, I also know about EMTs from my conversations with people inside and outside the church who report that EMTs are very important!  Yes, getting to the hospital safely and soundly in moments of emergency is important. When someone falls and can’t get up, having someone who will come and rescue them is worthy of thanks as well.
Here is where I want to bring in this principle of being “all things to all people.” What this means to me, is that First Responders are called upon to serve people without discrimination and without respect to one’s station in life. It doesn’t matter whether a person is rich or poor, black or white, male of female, straight or gay, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and honor. My expectation, from my experiences here in Troy, is that all of our First Responders take this sacred duty to heart.
In a moment we’ll have an opportunity to share a blessing for our First Responders, both those who are present today, and those who are not. Before we share that blessing, I would like to invite Chief Mayer to come and offer a word to us. After he speaks, we’ll have our hymn and then offer a litany of blessing, which will be followed by a song that gives thanks for our First Responders! So, Gary will you come and share a word with us?
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Epiphany 5B
February 4, 2018