Address at the Firefighters International Memorial Service, London 2015


Readings: Exodus 3.1-14 and Acts 2.1-11

The lengths your chaplains will go to to find a preacher who can wear fire engine red on their robes!… But what a privilege to be addressing you this afternoon, and remembering with you so many firefighters and their families who have given so much for others. Despite the amazing professionalism of the service, the element of risk remains; and we honour the dedication and sense of calling that our front-line crews in particular show – something that was very clear when I visited our local fire station recently (you can draw your own conclusions as to why I am housed next to all the emergency services), and learnt a lot about the life behind the big red appliances and flashing blue lights that is all most of us ordinary folk know. A big thank-you and a name-check to Darren and his team for making me so welcome.

So it’s good to be with you, and it’s rather special too to have the chance to join in the procession later, when I’ll be looking out for a bit of old-fashioned brasswork in memory of my great-grandad who lived just a couple of streets away from here in the 1870s and finished brass for a living. He’d have been as proud as me, I’m sure, to see you all in your finery – but bemused to see me in mine, since the family were Scots Presbyterians and no fans of bishops. Hey ho.

Happily we live in a more ecumenical age – but religion remains a potential source of conflict and violence, and extremist forms of it can cause us much anxiety. So for a family I met yesterday at the VJ celebrations, religion was a cause of war. But I want to suggest that good religion – and I don’t just mean my religion – is not part of the problem but part of the solution.

Compare faith with fire for a moment. Both are here to stay. Both can get out of hand. But both in their place are important and I would say vital for our human flourishing. Suppressing faith only encourages extremism, and the antidote to extremism is not no religion, but good religion and good education about religion – just as the dangers of fire are best met by a fire service of excellence and fire safety education throughout society, not by pretending it won’t touch us.

So I’ve rather cheekily chosen today’s Bible readings to point out that despite your day job, there is in spiritual terms a good sort of fire as well as a bad one, and our job is to fan its flames not put them out, to tend them, be warmed by them, and take that warmth to others. And whether we are firefighters or faith-workers, dignitaries or drivers, we all need that sort of fire in our heart, call it faith, call it spirituality, call it esprit de corps, and we need it to be good, whatever flag it flies under.

So what makes for a good fire in terms of faith? Today’s readings give us some hints from my own Christian tradition, and three stand out for me. Good faith fire needs the right sort of purpose, the right sort of people, and the right sort of power. Let’s take them one by one.

Purpose first. In today’s first reading God says he has heard the cry of his people. The emergency call has got through, and is being answered. More than that, it is being answered not as just another job to do, but with empathy and compassion. God sees the suffering, he sees the misery – just as so many of us saw the pictures of a drowned refugee child – and his heart was moved. And more than that still, this compassion, this desire to give of his own life for the life of others, is – to change to a different metaphor – not just the passing emotion of a moment, but absolutely encoded in his divine DNA. It’s the fire in his equations.

This is the God who chose not to sit alone but to call the riotous abundance of the cosmos into being. This is the God as Christians understand it who chose not to sit to one side but to come to the rescue in person and give up his own life for those he had made. This is the God who went on to pour out his own Spirit on them so that they could go out inspired to share in that mission themselves. This is the God who cannot stop giving, and who holds nothing back. And this is the sort of self-giving purpose that we need to share in as fire-fighters and faith-leaders.

That sort of purpose needs people, the talk needs the walk, if it isn’t to be just fine words and see no parsnips buttered. Last week the people of one of our churches were asked to put a banknote through the Rector’s door to help the refugees, and by the time he got home from church there was £1100 piled on his doormat. If we work together we can do more than we ever imagined we could. That’s what’s going on in the second reading, the story of Pentecost. The fire of the Spirit falls on them all. Its gifts are very democratically given, and from the beginning the assumption was that every follower of Jesus would try and live the Jesus way, share in Jesus’ Spirit, and be good news for others just as Jesus himself was. It’s about people on fire, and people on fire together in teams, making a strength of their diversity to share in the service of others.

As a sixth-former at one of our local schools read out in assembly last week, quoting the famous prayer of St Teresa of Avila: Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours; yours are the eyes with which he looks in compassion on this world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Whether you are red or white, black, green or blue (or purple for that matter), you’re part of the crew, it’s on your watch, and we’re in this together. God’s knows what gifts he has given us, and those are the ones he will use: one Spirit, but displayed in many forms. Heroes and heroines all, on fire for all this is good.

But how can we overcome that old human nature that makes us more of a one-bar radiator than a blazing fire for good? That takes us to the power. I started to think about this sermon over the bank holiday weekend. That was a human-nature diversionary tactic to try and stave off some work in the garden that I should have been doing. But it didn’t work, and I soon found myself pressure-washing the patio, sorting out the solar lights, and mending the veg beds, as one does.

God is good though, and the work in the garden started to sort out my head on what I needed to say now. Like when the pressure-washer was working just fine and then turned into a trickle – until I remembered to open the in-line valve and let the water through. Doh! Or how I had to work out that the reason that the solar lights were pretty … rubbish, was that they needed a day or two in the sun to get recharged, like it says on the packet. I really am very slow. Or how our eldest son gave me an ear-wigging for bashing in big nails to mend the veg beds not doing the job properly with screws; which was actually because my old power-driver had pathetic batteries and was even weaker than I was, which takes some doing. One new Makita Li-ion driver later, and the screws went in like a dream.

By then I was getting the point, and perhaps you are too. A great purpose and great people are all very well, but without some great power, not much will get done. Pentecost was all about a bit of God himself, some of his Spirit, plugging into ours so we could get out there and do the job. If we avoid the issue and try to get by on a wing and prayer spiritually, we soon find that we don’t have wings and haven’t said our prayers and are heading for a crash. The people we admire, the ones we’ll be remembering today, are the ones who were ready for the challenge when it came, and were able to set self aside and give life to others at the cost of their own self-comfort and perhaps their own life itself.

So I learned one more thing from the guys and girls at Ely Fire Station: the training never stops. Or when the crisis comes they might not just be fire up and prepared to operate that equipment or take that risk safely and see the day through. It’s no different with our spirit and no different with our faith. So let’s make a bit of a resolve to start some training now. As so often little and often is best. Doing small daily acts of kindness in word and deed until they became the habit of our lives; talking to God in prayer perhaps in the morning when the line is clear, against the day when it is full of noise; teaming up with others to transform our communities wherever we happen to live, and making sure no-one gets left out.

People empowered to see a good purpose through. Let’s light a good fire today that will be a fitting tribute to those we remember, and a force for good deep in our inner selves that will see our service excel.