Fr. Bill Carroll – The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 26, 2021

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’d like to share a story with you about a man named Stephen Siller.  I first saw the story in a Tik-Tok video recorded on 9/11 at the memorial at Ground Zero. And I sent the video to Tracey, because she’s from Brooklyn, and so is he.  I then looked up his story on the internet, because I wanted to learn more about Stephen and his life.

He was a New York City firefighter—part of a large, Roman Catholic family, the youngest of seven siblings.  Both his mother and his father died in quick succession, beginning when he was just eight years old.  And, with the love and support of his siblings, he grew up, and he joined the fire department, where he was a very proud firefighter.

On September 11, 2001, Stephen was just thirty-four years old.  He was on his way to go golfing with his brothers.  And he heard on a scanner about the first plane hitting the Towers.  And so, he turned around to go back his firehouse (Brooklyn Squad #1).  All 550 firehouses in the City of New York sent trucks and people downtown that day.  But Stephen missed his truck.  

And so, when he got to the firehouse, he put on his gear.  It was heavy—over sixty pounds.  And he ran to the nearest tunnel, which had been closed for security reasons, so he could get on to the Island of Manhattan.  He ran over five miles through the tunnel with all of his gear on—and then he went into that building which was on fire and about to collapse.  In the building, he died, along with many other first responders, as well as the people who worked there.

It is said that his parents were both part of a Franciscan community for laypeople, and that, on their knees, he learned the Creed he lived by, words spoken by Francis of Assisi, that perfect imitator of Christ, in one of the first lives of the Saint:  “While we have time,” Francis said, let us do good).”  “While we have time, let us do good,”—that’s the Creed that Stephen lived by.

Now, every single year in September, they close the tunnel Stephen ran through and hold a charity run there.  The Tunnel to Tower Foundation helps pay off mortgages and provide college scholarships, and gives other needed assistance to the families New York City firefighters and police officers who die in the line of duty.

I share this story this morning for two reasons.  First, because next week we will be celebrating the Feast of St. Francis on Sunday, October 3, with the blessing of the animals.  It’s a joyful occasion, and I hope you’ll be here for it. We will do this in the front yard of the church at 1 pm.  I always like to stress that St. Francis is about far more than the love of animals.  He’s all about brotherhood and sisterhood with the whole creation, human and non-human alike.  He is about following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ—living out his love in the world.  

It’s important to remember that a central teaching of the Gospel has to do with loving one another like Jesus loves us—laying down our lives if need be.  The call of our Lord Jesus Christ is an invitation to love and serve our neighbors.  Last week in the Gospel, we heard that, whoever would be first among the followers of Jesus, must become the servant of all.

The second reason I share this story this morning is because of today’s Gospel, where Jesus tells us to have salt in ourselves and live in peace with one another.  The call to be both salt and light is central to our mission as followers of Jesus.  The Church is to be a holy presence—a sign and herald to the world of God’s coming Kingdom.  In the words of one theologian (Stanley Hauerwas), we are to be different enough from the world that the world knows that it is the world.  In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that, when we lose our saltiness, we are no longer good for anything, but to be thrown underfoot.  

The life and death of Stephen Siller shows how powerful our Christian witness can be, when we really, really follow Jesus.  For the sake of his Lord, Stephen was willing to run into the danger, to save other people.  And, in the end, he widowed his wife and orphaned his five children.  Being an orphan himself, Stephen knew just how much it would cost his family, and yet he went anyway because he had chosen to follow Jesus.  His story provides us a powerful example of love.  It should lead us to pray and reflect about our own calling as disciples of Jesus.

Not all of us are firefighters.  Very few of us, in fact, face  physical danger at work.  There are first responders here.  There are people that work in medicine.  Some of us have served in the armed forces.  But most of us, whether we face physical danger or not, are in a position to help our neighbors. 

In the Epistle this morning, James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us that “whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Elsewhere in the Scriptures, in the fourth chapter of First Peter, we are told that “love covers a multitude of sins.”  Love.  That’s the heart of the Christian life—LOVE.  “If we have faith that can move mountains,” Paul tells us in another place, “or even if we give up our bodies to be burned,” he says, “without love, we are nothing.”

But if we do have love (if we do have love), no risk is too great.  No obstacle’s too hard. With love, we will expend our lives for one another.

And so, sometimes we do run into burning buildings, or we dare to speak difficult truths. Sometimes that’s very hard to do.  We humble ourselves, and we do the costly work of love.  Because that is what Jesus asks us to do.

It’s been said that we may be the only Gospel someone ever reads.

An Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, once said:  “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”  He also said that “The disciples of Christ should be such that people looking at [us] would be puzzled, perturbed, [and] challenged by the awareness that they have encountered men and women who [are] like no one else, not on account of [our] wisdom or reasoning, but because [we are] different: [because we have] become new creatures.”

If we follow Jesus closely enough, he will change us.  And, to me, that’s what it means to be salt and light in the world.

Go ask Stephen what it means.  Ask him what it means to be the love of Christ embodied in this world—to be salt and light, so that others can see and know how much God loves us all.