Following the Way

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
First Baptist Church, Eagle Lake, Texas
July 19, 2020
Brent Beasley

I have lived in Fort Worth for the last eleven years. I lead an organization called the Fort Worth Education Partnership, which is dedicated to the idea that every child in Fort Worth deserves access to a high-quality public education, no matter what neighborhood they live in. Before that, for seven years, I was Pastor of Broadway Baptist Church.

My predecessor at Broadway is now the Pastor at Brooklyn Heights Church in New York. This is a famous church—it’s the church of one of the most famous preachers in the 19th century: Henry Ward Beecher. His sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

There was once a little boy who from his home in Brooklyn Heights loved to watch the outgoing ships. One day he heard Henry Ward Beecher preach on a harbor as a place of refuge into which storm-tossed ships put for safety.

You big chump, the boy said to Mr. Beecher, in strong protest of the image. The boy instinctively felt that the great preacher didn’t know much about harbors. He heard the preacher pronounce the words,
Safe in the harbor, and
Home to the harbor at last to rest. 
But the boy didn’t see the harbor as a place to snuggle down in, a nice little place to come home to at night. 

For all the years the boy had carefully watched the ships coming and going from his window, he had viewed the harbor as a
restless,
heaving and
always changing
place. It never seemed a place where ships came to dock but always a place from which ships start out – into the storms and the fogs of the seas. He saw it as a place for setting out on an adventure.

Do you ever think that the Christian faith is not
a destination, a point of arrival, but
a beginning, a point of departure?
Do you ever think that the Christian ministry is not
a place of rest but
a restless, heaving place?
A starting place for adventure?

Think about this church—our church here and how it began.

Imagine with me, if you can, the year is 1856. That was the year that Gamaliel Good purchased 2,300 acres of land and a township was designated that eventually became Eagle Lake. Eleven years after Texas became a part of the Union. 35 years earlier, in 1821, two of Stephen F. Austin’s guides were sent to this area to see if it was suitable for colonists. They decided it was.

They must not have come in August.

They camped on the shores of the lake and shot an eagle. So, they referred to the place as “Eagle Lake.” Our town had a name before it had people.

Between the years 1827 and 1836 pioneers from Virginia and Tennessee, mainly, began to move in and build cabins around the lake. In 1859 Texas’ first railroad, the Buffalo, Brazos, and Colorado Railway reached Eagle Lake from Harrisburg. Judge J.J. Mansfield, distinguished congressman from Texas, began his law practice here and edited a small newspaper—The Canoe.

In the late 1860s soon after the Civil War, Mr. J. B. Armstrong and Miss Mary Norris were married in Camden, Alabama. Apparently, Mary Norris agreed to marry J. B. Armstrong with two conditions: first, that he wouldn’t become a preacher, and second, that he would never move to Texas.

Nothing was further from his mind than these two things, so he readily consented. They were married and moved to Mobile, Alabama were Armstrong was engaged in the mercantile business.

Then came to him this clear, unmistakable call to preach. Mary, unwilling to interfere with God himself, let him out of his first promise, but still insisted on the second promise—about not moving to Texas—, which he renewed.

Mary Armstrong became critically ill. The doctor offered her no hope but suggested that they “go West immediately”. So, Armstrong went to New Orleans and bought two tickets to the end of the Southern Pacific railroad line, which at that time was Schulenberg, Texas.

On the train, the Armstrongs met a Dr. Harrison of Columbus, Texas. Dr. Harrison persuaded the Armstrongs to get off in Columbus, believing that perhaps he could help Mrs. Armstrong.

Mrs. Armstrong lived to the age of 93, surviving her husband and every member of her father’s family, dying in 1937.

The Baptist Church of Eagle Lake, Texas was organized in 1875 with J. B. Armstrong as pastor. The church used a building which was also used as an
opera house,
school house,
dance hall, and
general meeting house.
A few years later, the Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians built a church for them all to share. They called it the Union Church.

It’s worth noting that the ways that most of the churches in Eagle Lake work together and worship together goes all the way back to the beginning.

In 1888, the Baptists completed a building of their own on Church Street at a cost of about $1,500. This building was blown down by a storm in 1900.

In 1907 the church completed a new brick building at a cost of $5,100. It had massive wood and brick columns on the front and amber glass windows.

A new building was built in 1926. This is the building on Lake Street that is now in ruins. This building served the church well for 29 years until it became evident that a larger facility was needed.

The building where we are now was dedicated in January of 1956. The total cost was $143,000.

One of the things that strikes me in looking back at all this is that all along the way, since two of Stephen F. Austin’s guides came here 200 years ago, people set out on these bold journeys, not having any idea how it would turn out. You do things, you make transformative decisions, but you just never know.

Gamliel Good purchased 2,000 acres here imagining there could be a town. But he didn’t know, he didn’t have any guarantee, what would happen, how it would turn out.

Settlers from Virginia and Tennessee uprooted their families and their whole lives and started new lives here. They didn’t know.

J.B. Armstrong and Mary Norris committed their lives to one another—counting on the fact that he wouldn’t be a minister and they wouldn’t move to Texas. They didn’t know.

They started this church. 60 something years ago people you and I know built these buildings. They didn’t know how it would turn out. But they gave themselves to it. They risked something big for something good.
You know, following Jesus is not something you did back in 4th grade or whenever and got a certificate. Following Jesus is not a static event in the past that you did in your mind and heart; it is something that involves movement— going, doing, being. It’s dynamic and active. It’s a life.

God is calling us to follow. And God keeps on calling us.

I think about you and God calling me to be your pastor here. 26 years old. Didn’t know anything. Before calling me, this church had had two long-term, experienced pastors in a row for over 30 years. I had almost no experience—pastoral or life.

I had no understanding about living in this part of Texas or living in a small town.

I didn’t know where Eagle Lake was until I got that first contact from Bill Harrison.

I didn’t know people grew rice in Texas. I had never heard of “rice salad.”

I didn’t know anything about goose hunting. Still don’t.

I didn’t know that this Colorado River was different than the one that flows through the Grand Canyon.

I didn’t know that there is such a thing as an Attwater’s Prairie Chicken and that it is endangered.

And I could not have understood then how much coming here would mean to me.

I didn’t know that my son would have his first day of school here.

I didn’t know that my daughter would be born here.

I didn’t know how much I would love living here.
I loved my neighbors.
I loved walking to the post office on Saturday.
I loved little league.
I loved being a part of the community.
I loved the relationships with other churches.
I loved being a part of this church.

I didn’t know how my relationships here would shape me.

I didn’t know that a Catholic priest could become one of my closest friends.

I didn’t know how much a church could be a pastor to me while I was trying to be a pastor to you.

I didn’t know that even 22 years later it would mean the world to me.

Hebrews tells us that: By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

Abraham and Sarah set out on a lifelong journey of following God. They set out, not knowing where they were going. Abraham and Sarah are held up as models of people who live by faith.

What happened was that they were minding their own business making a life for themselves when Abraham became convinced that God wanted them to pull up the stakes and head out for Canaan, where God promised that Abraham would become the father of a great nation, which would then be a blessing to all nations. So that’s what they did.

They set out without a map. They couldn’t do Google Maps because they didn’t know what to put in the space for “Destination.” They didn’t know where they were going; they just knew they were going. Going by faith.

Frederick Buechner says that faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find out that we are loved by God.

Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.

Faith means striking out with no clear end in sight and perhaps even no clear view of the next step.

Living by faith means
following,
trusting,
holding out a hand to
an invisible guide.

As Thomas Graham put it, faith is reason gone courageous—not the opposite of reason but
something more than reason and
something never satisfied by reason alone.
A step always remains beyond the range of light.

Sometimes, this is an advantage in our journey of faith—not knowing what’s ahead of us on the journey.

Jonathan Raban is an Englishman who in 1980 traveled the length of the Mississippi River alone in a small boat.

He wrote the best-selling book Old Glory about the experience. He wonders what could have gotten into him, thinking he could navigate the mighty Mississippi when all he had done before was to splash about in a rowboat in the Thames.

I think, he says, it’s wise to begin big journeys (like parenthood, for example) in a state of misguided innocence — you’d never do it if you knew beforehand what it really entailed.

That’s the life of faith.

It’s risky, in other words. It’s a journey without a map.

Hebrews tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

We see in the example of Abraham and Sarah that going by faith means starting out without necessarily knowing what your destination is.

We also see in the example of Abraham and Sarah that going by faith might mean that you never actually reach the destination—that you never arrive. That’s hard for us to accept. We want to arrive. We want to finish the task and put our feet up and enjoy. But on the journey of faith, often you never actually reach the destination.

The author of Hebrews says in verse 13:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.

In spite of everything, Abraham never stopped having faith that God was going to keep his promise about making him the father of a great nation.

There was that group photograph he had taken not long before he died. It was a bar mitzvah, and they were all there down to the most distant cousin. They weren’t a great nation yet by a long shot. But there Abraham sat—
in a big chair,
a yarmulke on his head,
several great-grandchildren on his lap,
the sparkle of faith in his eyes.
[Buechner]

Not exactly a great nation yet. Had he arrived? No. But from a distance, he could see it.

Sometimes when you journey by faith you don’t see the promises fulfilled, but you journey on anyway. And through you God sets things in motion the result of which you may never see up close but from a distance. . . .

Earnest Campbell preached a sermon at Riverside Church in New York. He said:
To be young is to study in schools that you didn’t build.
To be mature is to build schools in which you will not study.

To be young is to swim in pools that you did not dig. To be mature is to dig pools in which you will not swim.

To be young is to sit under trees that you did not plant.
To be mature is to plant trees under which you will not sit.

To be young is to dance to music you did not write. To be mature is to write music to which you will not dance.

To be young is to benefit from a church that you did not make.
To be mature is to make a church from which you might not benefit.

Sometimes when you journey by faith you don’t see the promises fulfilled, but you journey on anyway. And through you God sets things in motion the result of which you may never see up close but from a distance. . . .

I’m the kind of person who needs a map or explicit directions to get anywhere. I was not born with that inner sense of direction that some people seem to have. I would never take off on a journey without directions or, now, Google Maps.

But a person who lives by faith more often than not has to
proceed on incomplete directions, incomplete
evidence,
trusting in advance what will only make sense in
reverse.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

Life is a series of beginnings. I know this well from personal experience. Life is a series of beginnings.

Moses and the burning bush.
Samuel in the temple.
Elijah in the whirlwind.
Esther in the king’s palace.
Mary in her dreams.
John in the wilderness.
Simon and Andrew at their fishing nets.
Saul on that Damascus road.

And on and on to the extent that in your life and mine… God keeps on calling.

What will you say, what will you do,
when you come upon your next beginning,
when, after moments or years of consideration, the
time comes to get up and move?
What will you say, what will you do, when God says, Go, when Jesus says to you, Follow me?
It’s a little scary, I know.

C. S. Lewis describes responding to Jesus’ call to follow him like this. It is like an unborn chick inside the egg. The chick is comfortable and unchallenged. The egg contains nutrients for its sustenance, but they will soon be depleted. The chick must choose:
stay in the egg and die or
adventure out and live.
The shell must be cracked from the inside. And in so doing, it enters an entirely new world. This world, though new to the chick and a little scary, is the world for which it is made.

My friend Steve Shoemaker, also a former pastor at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, has this benediction that he always pronounces every Sunday at the end of the worship service:
May the Lord bless you
and keep you.
May God’s face
shine upon you and
be gracious unto you.
May God give you the grace
never to sell yourself short;
grace to risk something big
for something good;
grace to remember that the
world is too dangerous
for anything but truth and
too small for anything but love.
So, may God take your minds
and think through them;
may God take your lips
and speak through them;
may God take your hearts
and set them on fire.
Amen

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