Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon: In Humility... (A Tribute to the Day Family)

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Mission Sunday
June 15, 2008

In Humility…

Philippians 2:1-13
2If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Let us Pray: Holy and Gracious God, we give you thanks for calling us into being and into service. Help us to respond to your call with glad and willing hearts. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

Sisters and Brothers, I have just returned from my first mission trip in many, many years. If it seems odd to you that a minister in the early years of her service to Christ Jesus and the church hasn’t been on an actual mission trip since her own college days, well, you’re right. I have held fast to the notion that I have been serving in my own local mission context each day as I wake up with two young children who are beautifully demanding from morning until night, and into the night. But, I know in my heart of hearts, that nothing can shake us out of our spiritual doldrums like the opportunity to get away from our daily routine and enter into a world that is unlike ours. As Eugene Peterson once observed: “The Christian faith needs continuous maintenance; it requires attending to.” This week, I got my chance as my husband, two children, and five of our youth piled into a 15 passenger van and headed to the Hinton Rural Life center in Hayesville, NC.
This past week, I have witnessed some absurdities. It seemed somewhat absurd that my entire family, my own mission field, if you will, would be attending this trip. What on earth would I do with my 1 year old and my 3 year old?! How would the youth respond? And once we arrived, the absurdities continued. The church van from my home church in Knoxville, TN sat in the parking lot, dirty and faded from years of hard labor. It had been donated to the Hinton center several years ago, but it was in this very van that I took on all of my mission trips as a youth. As I went to visit Margaret and Tori in their room, I noticed that Rev. Jim and Virginia Hankins had sponsored it; Rev. Hankins baptized me at my home church. Absurd!
When we finally arrived on site at a little home in Murphy, NC, tucked away in the mountains, we became overwhelmed with absurdities. After all, when was the last time you saw a house whose water was brought in from a pipe, run from a well? A wood burning stove? A couple in their 70s who were still working so that they could pay their medical bills? A house that had been built room-by-room with found lumber and materials? A diamondback rattler on the guest room dresser? Okay- I didn’t actually see that last one, but it happened a few days before we arrived at the home of W.L. and Annie Day.
To give the full picture of W.L and Annie Day’s life would take longer than I have this morning, but I can tell you that W.L. was diagnosed with brain cancer two years ago, and has since had a tumor the size of his fist removed from his skull. He is left with a strong spirit, but a fragile body. His wife, Annie, has bones that are aging faster than she is, but she still goes to work at a nursing home at 5:30 every morning. They have two sons, and 5 grandchildren. Both of their sons live in decaying trailers on their property, off the gravel road that leads to their piecemeal house. Their oldest son, Dennis, has 4 girls, one of whom was taken in when she was 3. His oldest daughter, who turns 17 next month, is engaged to be married in December. W.L. and Annie’s youngest son, Michael, died last September 12. After his wife ran off with their infant son, the darkness overwhelmed the light and he turned to drugs. On that morning in the fall, they found him, alone.
As the stories began unfolding during our week with the Day family, it was clear that there was more work to be done than we could accomplish in 4 6-hour work days. If Paul exhorts for us to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” it was clear that we could do nothing more than begin some good work here, but we wouldn’t come close to attaining our goal. But, we dove in and began to take down trim from ceilings, as pollen and dust showered upon us. Margaret and I were nearly paralyzed as our fear of snakes overwhelmed us. Joseph unhooked rickety plumbing, and Jacob removed a bathtub, while Ben took down rotten sheetrock and decaying floors to find more decay and brokenness. Because the house had literally been built room-by-room, nothing was square, level, or proper. This was the model of a home that was on the verge of collapse – physically, emotionally and spiritually. The Day family had seen just about all it could handle for one lifetime.
Paul writes to the Philippians, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete.” In discussing the passage this week, Margaret astutely pointed out the absurdity of Paul’s phrasing. Why would he say “If … then?” Shouldn’t he be a little more bold? Why phrase this as a question when it seems clear that we should assume that there is encouragement in Christ, compassion and sympathy. Perhaps Paul knew that for folks like the Days, encouragement and sharing in the Spirit were becoming luxuries beyond their ability.
We noticed without platitude our ability to come home and wash off the decay and rot, while we left the Day family with no running water or place to shower. Jacob, Matt and Joseph and Ben removed their bathtub, which was cracked before its installation in 2004, on Tuesday, and a new one won’t arrive until this week. We had to turn off the plumbing to the house. This meant that Annie and W.L. had to trudge up the hill to the trailer that had belonged to Michael. W.L. had been their every day over the winter to keep a fire going. Annie hadn’t set foot there since his death.
On Wednesday, Annie didn’t go to work. She, her daughter-in-law, Maria, and their two youngest daughters went to Michael’s to begin cleaning. They kept vigil there all morning while we worked on W.L.’s house. I have no idea what they were working on, but I do know that it smelled overwhelmingly of bleach when I visited after lunchtime. With Cooper sleeping on my back, I took W.L.’s suggestion to go visit Annie and the other women. Their youngest granddaughter, Hannah, gave me a tour of Michael’s home, pointing out his love of stockcar racing and Dale Jr. In the corner of the living room was a television the size of a SmartCar; it was the last thing he bought before he died, as a lease-purchase from ColorTyme. Down the hall was his son’s room, filled with stuffed animals and some new-looking baby toys. There were family photos and drinks in the fridge. Maria and her team were straightforward in their labor, but they asked me to pray with them.
On a hot Wednesday afternoon, in the valley of the Appalachian Mountains, I prayed with these women. I prayed for their strength, their love, healing, patience. I prayed fervently for hope and continued faith in Christ. They invited me to pray for them by name, offering me nuggets of insight into their most desperate longing. Truly these were people who were desperate for hope; their faith was beginning to waver, as the events of the last few years had been nearly too much for them. The words of Paul in Philippians came to mind as I prayed with them, and we thanked God for Jesus, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Wendell Debner writes that, “Jesus abandoned all claims to the form of God in the choice of nothingness or emptiness. The rich one became poor for our sakes. Here is Christ under all conditions of human life.” Here is Christ, indeed. In a broken-down trailer of a broken-down family with a broken-down spirit. Here is Christ. In the midst of abject poverty and desolation. The son of God, covered in dirt, filth and sadness, joined in our circle of prayer.
There was a shift that day. The Day family, who was on the verge of giving into the darkness, saw new light. Our work on the site crawled to a slow and painful halt as we encountered setback upon setback. But, Tori – our family coordinator – laid a foundation for us to spend some quality time with this family. They helped us carry out scraps of wood, pile up lumber, store away insulation. They participated in the life and work that we had been called to do for them. John Baillie writes that “Humility is the obverse side of confidence in God, whereas pride is the obverse side of confidence in self.” This week, we witnessed humility, as none regarded any other as better than themselves. Our week of mission ended on Thursday night as we feasted in fellowship with the Day family. They joined us for dinner, and we, one of the smallest groups at Hinton, had one of the largest tables of folks. We ate, enjoyed dessert, and sat on the porch overlooking Lake Chatuge drinking coffee and hot chocolate, enjoying the beauty of God’s creation that is for us all.
Paul writes that we are to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” How are you doing this in your own life? Are you caring for a partner, friend, parent, loved one? Have you donated your time and effort to those in need? Do you serve with the breakfast or supper club? If so, remember that you are doing all of this for God and God’s call in you, in humility. Brothers and sisters, I witnessed this week some absurdities, but what a blessing these were. It led all of us to understand that truly “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Amen and amen.

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