July 31, 2016: "Rethinking Mission"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
July 31, 2016
Isaiah 42:1-9 & Matthew 9:27-38
I have titled by sermon today Rethinking Mission for two reasons. First, as part of our Summer Sermon Series where you suggest sermon topics, I have been asked today to reflect on Christian mission in the world—what it is, what it looks like, and how we go about doing it. The second reason I have titled my sermon in this way is that in my relatively short time of trying my best to follow Jesus Christ, I have had to rethink mission—what it is I am called to do, what that call leads me to do, and how I go about doing it. It was two mission trips in particular that led me to rethink my mission as a follower of Jesus, and it is these two experiences that have formed my understanding of Christian mission. I would like to share some about those experiences with you today.
The first mission experience I had was in 2007. To give you some context, I had recently graduated from college and had no worldly idea what I was going to do with my life. I had, however, found a comfortable position as a organist at a Presbyterian church in my hometown. Even though I had no clear idea of what I was going to be as a grown-up, God did. It was at about this time that I was beginning to feel a nudge towards doing more in the church. Of course, that nudge turned into a push, which at times felt as if God was dragging into the places that I needed to be. Eventually, God’s nudging and pulling and dragging led to me becoming a pastor. I didn’t know it at the time, but again, God did. One way that God helped me to hear the call to ministry was to put me in the places I needed to be. One of those places was a men’s Bible study group where I first heard about a team going to Florida to rebuild houses after Hurricane Katrina.
I had never been on a mission trip before but I was assured that no prior experience was necessary. I had just finished school, and the trip was during the summer, so I didn’t have a lot going on; the church where I was working said that they would give me the time off if I wanted. So I signed up for the trip and really had no idea what to expect, good or bad. Our team met a lot before the trip so that we could get to know each other. There were 14 people on the team: two plumbers, three electricians, two subcontractors, two nurses, a doctor, a pastor, two insurances adjustors, and me…a musician. These were people who had been going on mission trips longer than I had been alive, and they were so gracious in teaching me what I needed to know, in showing me how to use tools I had never seen before, and in laughing with me when I accidentally used silicon caulking to fill drywall-screw holes on an entire wall of a house.
The destination of our trip was Pensacola, Florida, along the coastline of the Florida panhandle. In the years following Hurricane Katrina, most federal and non-profit agencies focused their energy and resources on Louisiana, and on the Mississippi and Alabama coastline. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance noticed that the western part of Florida had all but been abandoned in their time of greatest need and we were one of the teams they sent to give aid. When we arrived we were taken to a small home, about 600 square feet, not too far from the beach; the house was covered almost entirely with blue tarps. On closer inspection we saw that the roof had collapsed in, the windows had all been broken, and the walls and floors were covered in thick, black mold. In the middle of one of the two bedrooms I saw something that is burned into my memory to this day: a ragged teddy bear, covered in mold, presumably left behind when the family had to leave in haste.
The PDA coordinator in Pensacola was exasperated at best, and utterly defeated at worst. He told us that we had a budget for any materials we needed, and asked us to do whatever we could. When he found out that there were so many skilled workers on our team, a little spark lit up in his eyes as if for the first time in a long time he was seeing some light in the darkness.
By the end of our second day of ten, we had stripped the house down to its bare structure—the roof was gone, the rusty appliances were gone, the walls and windows were gone, the flooring and sub flooring was gone. All that was left were the bones, and the bones were good.
By the end of day five, shingles were being nailed to the roof and a new floor had been finished. By the end of day seven there was sheet rock on the walls and the windows had been installed. By the end of day eight the sheet rock had been replaced that I had covered with silicone caulking, and the vinyl siding was nearly complete. Two days later, on the evening of our ninth day of work, the interior of the house was fully painted, the plumbing and electrical was ready for new appliances, and the front and back doors were installed and locked. We found out that night that we had come in so under budget that PDA was able to order all new appliances and fixtures for the home without any cost to the owner. We started early every morning and worked late into the evening, and we congratulated ourselves for finishing the job.
On the morning that we left Pensacola to go home, ten days later, we stopped at the house and met the homeowners for the first time. It was a our joy and pleasure that morning to hand to the man and his pregnant wife, and their two-year-old son, the keys to a home they had left nearly two years ago. You can imagine that there were many tears and a lot of pride; we had restored what was destroyed, we had put a roof over the heads of a family, we had completed our mission. That was my first mission experience.
Now, last summer I had a mission experience that was, let's say, different. I joined some of our friends from Stillwater on a trip to Loveland, Colorado, a beautiful town at the base of the Rocky Mountains. From September 9 to September 13, 2013, Loveland, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins, and every town in between, experienced what historians called the “1,000 Year Flood.” There was more rain in that area of Colorado in those four days than the entire state receives on an annual basis, and it was devastating. The Big Thompson River, which snakes its way down the mountain from Estes Park slammed into Loveland with epic force, carrying with it everything it had picked up from every town along the way. Adding to the devastation was a rash of severe forest fires the following Spring, which went completely unchecked because most fire departments in the area had been washed away in the flood. It was unusually wet again in the year after the flood and fires so in less than a year the area had flooded, burned, then flooded again.
For several days of this trip our team was sent to an unmarked clearing on the side of a windy mountain road that, we guessed, had once been someone’s home. We were told that our work was to clear the area of debris. In some areas of the property the river had washed everything away, leaving clean patches of dirt. In other areas of the property the river had dropped off ancient trees and twisted piles of metal and boulders larger than cars. “Clean it up,” they said. Well, how? How do you go about moving a car-sized boulder from here to there? How do you begin to untangle piles of mangled cars and electrical wiring and pieces of homes from miles up the river? Where do you start in cutting apart a tree that is taller than this church building and 10 feet around? We were grossly unprepared, and sadly unequipped for the work. To say the least, we felt defeated.
Taking a break one day, eating lunch sitting on stumps and cars bumpers, a lady approached our group and started talking with us. She told us about the floods in September of 2013 and about the fires in the Spring of 2014 and about the flood that came after the fires. She told us about how her house had been completely washed off the foundation, and how she watched one night as the river swept away 10 motorhomes that were parked in a campground on her property. At times, she could barely choke out the words through the tears. She told us how the year before the floods she had lost her life-long partner to cancer and had thought, before the flood, of selling everything and moving to California for a fresh start. She told us how she was living in a hotel room given to her by the Red Cross, and how nice and comfortable it was, but how sad she was when she had to sell her horses who had survived the flood because there was no place to keep them any longer. She told us how many groups had come to help, and that some good had come in the past two years, but really, she wasn’t sure she was going to survive this one.
After a while, one of the young people on our team looked up from his sandwich and asked the lady where her home and her campground and her farm used to be. And looking out at the mess in front of us all, she said, “Right here.”
We had the great fortune of returning to that debris-covered wasteland several more times on the trip. I say that we were fortunate because each day the lady came and had lunch with us. Each day she would tell us about the home she and her partner had built together and about the people they had met over the years who parked their motorhomes on their property. We learned that she was a Methodist, but that the Methodist church where she was attending had a Baptist preacher, so she didn’t really know what she was. She was intrigued by Presbyterianism. She likes to sing, though she admitted that she would never record a Grammy Award-Winning album. She was really interested in me as a young pastor because she said that being a pastor is hard work, and she was excited when Katie and I told her that were getting married in a few months. We talked about Scripture together and we prayed. In the end, we didn't, couldn't, do much work in clearing her property of debris and destruction. But I believe that we were a part of God clearing her heart and mind of what the storms and the fires had destroyed.
In Florida, the mission was clear: tear this house apart and rebuild it in ten days…and we did it! And it was exciting and energizing. In Colorado, the mission was not as clear and we felt defeated and useless. That is, until God placed a woman in our lives who needed companions, people of hope, friends…the mission was different but it was just as joyful, just as meaningful, just as important to God’s kingdom.
These two experiences have forced me to rethink Christian mission, my mission as a follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ laid the mission field before us saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” And while he laid the mission field before us, while he showed us a vast world in need of hope and companionship and rebuilding and love, he did not say that mission is this one thing or that one thing. My experience had taught me that mission work in the name of Christ can be as grueling and tiring as building a home for a family to live in. But my experience has also taught me that mission work in the name of Christ is about being a friend to the lonely, about binding up the wounds of the sick, about simply being a traveling companion to someone who is alone. While it feels good to do something grand, to finish a project that you can be truly proud of, there are times when mission is about planting seeds that you may never see grow and bear fruit. While it is good to step back and say, “We did it,” mission, at times, is about stepping back and saying, “God is doing it and will continue to do it when we are gone.”
So I have a challenge for you. When you leave this place today, clear your mind of any and all assumptions and ideas you have about mission, and simply open your eyes—open your eyes, because the mission field of your faith is right in front of you. The mission field may be your neighbor’s home that is in desperate need of repairs, repairs that they can’t do but that you can. The mission field may be the classroom that you are preparing right now for the first day of school, where children will come from many different places and many different backgrounds to know that they are valued, to feel secure, to learn. The mission field may be your home, a place that God has given you where you are raising your children or loving your spouse or making a better life than you had before. The mission field may be the child, or even the adult, who is being bullied and needs a advocate, a companion, to be on their side. The mission field may be someone who is injured, left on the side of the road and passed by, that you can care for regardless of who they are. The mission field may be in working to reduce waste of all kinds—food, energy, or otherwise—finding places where excess can sure-up someone’s shaky foundation. The mission field may be in places where the mercy and grace of God that you have received can end violence, deconstruct systems of oppression, and peacefully calm aggression. The mission field may be in places where your talents and skills inspire and create beauty where there is no beauty, no inspiration, no creativity. Open your eyes, see the mission field laid before you by the Lord, and then get to work. Get to work because you have been called, I have been called, to go into the field of the Lord and bring in a harvest for God's glory and praise.
And wherever you find yourself exercising the mission calling of you faith, do everything because of love; don’t do it because you think your plans are better, or because you think people just need Jesus, or because you think you know what someone else needs or wants. Do everything because of love—the love that has been showered down on you and me unconditionally and unreservedly by our God who is faithful. Do it in love and with love; measure it in love. Because when everything we do is done in love, we will be the people God created us to be and we will complete our mission: to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon who sit in darkness. With God’s help, may it be so for you and for me, now and always. Amen.