Out From the Trash Pile
Adapted from a sermon at First United Methodist Church of Orlando.
I spent last week with our 7th & 8th grade mission team in North Carolina. We were assigned to a trailer home on the Black Mountain, near Asheville. The house sat on a hill, overlooking the mountains. It was beautiful. If you ignored the dwelling.
Mounds of trash, discarded clothes, toys, and everything else imaginable covered every inch of the ground inside and around the trailer. It was a mess unlike anything I’d seen before.
The mission organization told us a young couple and their four young kids had lived in the trailer until December. They didn’t get into specifics, but something had led the family to leave everything as it was. It was as if the family left in the morning and just didn’t return. The dishwasher was loaded with dishes. The fridge, unpowered for months, still had food in it.
Our goal, the mission organization explained, was to get the trailer to a livable condition. The couple was trying to turn their lives around and keep their children. Living in a safe and dry home was a big step toward that goal.
Our team spent the first day bagging and removing trash from the property. After the second dumpster was full, we learned three had already been removed form the property. The property was overrun with discarded stuff.
Once the trailer was empty of trash and carpet, we could inspect to see what needed to be accomplished. In short, it was pretty much everything.
The roof leaked. The windows were broken. The appliances were all bad. The fridge was rancid and needed to be removed without being opened. All the floors needed replacement. The walls had holes needing patching. There was no electricity or running water.
I’ve worked on dozens of homes over the years and this was the first one where I truly did not know where to begin. We could have worked for weeks and not finished the to-do list.
The mission organization told us to focus on sealing the roof to prevent further leaks and paint the exterior of the trailer.
To me, this was just a small dent into what the family needed to live in the home. I figured our priorities should be on bigger projects, yet this was the direction presented.
The kids worked diligently. We slowly added additional projects as time and resources allowed. Windows were boarded to keep water out of the house. Some holes were patched. Floors were scrubbed. The exterior was completely painted. An interior room was primed for paint.
On the third day of work, the family came by to see what was going on. One of the children was celebrating his fifth birthday. Our team of middle schoolers sprung into action and grabbed the Rice Krispy Treats from our lunch to present as gifts. They sung “Happy Birthday” twice while the little boy and his siblings ate dessert for breakfast.
After the singing ended, the children ran around and through the house elated. This was their house and they couldn’t wait to move back in. The couple took the children to their grandparents and returned to help paint for an hour or so before going to work.
On the final day, we finished painting and turned to some general clean up work. Weeds and dead branches were pulled from the fence line. Overgrown vines were ripped out and a sizable burn pile was created.
At the end of the week, I was still a bit frustrated. The kids accomplished a tremendous amount of work on the trailer. The home and the land surrounding it went through a massive transformation over the four work days. Was it livable? I guess that depends on the definition. The home was cleaner and dry. The walls still had some holes and there were no appliances, electricity, or water. But it was a huge step in the right direction.
After returning home, I opened the Bible to read the scripture for tonight so I could start focusing on this message. Sometimes God just smacks you over the head with what you need to hear. That was my experience as I read the scripture.
Tonight’s scripture is from John 15:1–8 (CEB):
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 2He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. 3You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. 6If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.
This scripture describes the basis for a relationship with Christ. As long as we remain connected to the vine — to Christ — we will produce fruit. Remember the definition of sin is a separation from God. When branches are separated from the vine, they wither and are thrown into the burn pile.
Our word for tonight is “Salvation.” The word has a lot of connotations, but at the base the definition of salvation is “being saved from harm”. Our salvation in Christ is being saved from our sin.
The family who owned the house had gotten themselves into a bad situation. However, they decided to cut ties with their old way of living, to literally throw everything into the burn pile so they could start fresh. When we met them the first day, we asked if there was anything in the house to keep and the answer was no. Get rid of it all the mother had said.
Just like with actual plants, sometimes we have to remove the old and disconnected branches before the healthy new life is able to grow. The family was ready to grow, to experience new life, so first the disconnected branches must be removed.
Our faith is one of redemption. We all make mistakes in life. We all make choices that disconnect us from the vine of Christ. However, no matter what we do or choose, there is nothing that cannot be salvaged. Salvation is being saved from sin and there is no amount of sin that cannot be redeemed.
Our faith is built upon hope in salvation, upon hope in redemption.
At Church Council on Tuesday, we opened with a devotional that discussed hope. Hope was described as turning the worst day into a good day. I had been asked to report on the various mission trips and as I sat, listening to the devotion, I realized all three trips I participated in focused on hope.
The first trip to the Dominican Republic served with Renewed Hope Missions. Ten years ago when the mission began, hope for the future was hard to find in the small farming community. Their children were cut off from education, clean water, and other essential resources. Today, Renewed Hope has a school that graduates preschoolers excited to go to elementary school. The mission provides clean water to residents in the community. Most importantly, hope for the future moves through the community in palpable ways.
The second trip with our sixth grade team served a family who’s trailer was flooded during Hurricane Irma. Throughout the week, we saw a change in the homeowner. He went from barely seen to working side by side with our team. During the week, his home went from still leaking to dried in. Through conversation with him, hope was present. Our hope was that the change we witnessed continued to grow as the summer progressed.
Sometimes hope is hard to find. Sometimes the dead branches and trash in our lives has piled up to the point of being overwhelmed. We can’t see the vine, let alone figure out how to reconnect. It’s like facing a list so long you don’t know where to begin.
I don’t know what you’re trash pile looks like, but our faith in Christ is one of redemption and hope. There’s always a way back to the vine. There’s always a way back to salvation.
One way we are able to return to the vine, to remain in Christ as the scripture says, is through communion. The footnotes in my Bible describe communion with Christ as a mutual indwelling — that’s fancy church speech for being permanently present with each other.
Take this time to reconnect with the vine, to be present with God. You might be right there, totally connected, and communion serves as a reminder of that connection. Or you might be stuck under an overwhelming pile of dead branches and trash. Communion is here as a way back to reconnect with Christ.
Our faith is one of hope. Our faith is one of redemption.
Let us commune with God and reconnect with the vine.