Good evening friends! Its good to be with you as always as we gather together to worship the Living God.
So one of my favorite movies as a child was a movie called the “Inn of Sixth Happiness.” Have any of you seen it? It is an old Hollywood classic starring Ingrid Bergman, which depicted the true life story of a British woman who against all odds became a missionary to China in the 1930s.
This woman, Gladys Aylward, was a working class woman who felt strongly that God had called her to China, yet because of her inadequate education, she was repeatedly rejected by the missionary societies who could send her there.
Despite the obstacles, Glady’s sense of call to China was so strong so that she persisted in finding a way and sought out every contact she could. Eventually, she discovered a missionary woman in her 70s named Jeannie Lawson who needed some assistance with her inn in Yangchen, China.
Her perseverance just to get to China was certainly amazing, but as we learn from the movie (or the book that has been written about her), her perseverance did not end there.
During her time in China, Gladys took in and adopted numerous children who had been kidnapped and abandoned in the region; she became the local public official’s friend and official foot inspector who traveled across the region ending the oppressive practice of foot-binding, she stopped riots and improved conditions in a local men’s prison, she led 100 orphans on long, treacherous trip to safety at the time of the Japanese invasion, and she did many other things.
And of course through all this, she shared the Good News of Christ, and many received it.
What an amazing woman. What an amazing story. Through the extraordinary grace of God, this working class woman, of little significance in her own country, became well loved and respected in her new home. Everywhere among the local peoples, she took on a new Chinese name, which meant “the Virtuous One”.
In a remote place where other Western missionaries wouldn’t go, this woman became an amazing vessel of God’s love, grace, and justice. Years before, she had trusted God’s call to go to an unknown place and by doing so, she became a great blessing to many people. In fact, her inn, The Inn of Eight Happinesses (the actual name of the Inn) became a symbol of light, hospitality, and joy to the people in the region.
Well, I have to say that this is one of my all time favorite stories. It is not just because it takes place in China, a land that I love, it is also greatly inspiring and I think it is a good story to tell along side the story of Abraham that we heard today.
The story of Abraham is also about a person who was also called by God to leave his home and go to an unknown place. It is a story about how amazing blessing came to the nations because of one’s man trust in God and obedience in following God’s call.
Both stories – Abraham’s and Glady’s – have much to teach us. And while some of us might immediately protest, saying I’ll never be an Abraham or a Gladys Aylward (and that is good because we all need to be uniquely ourselves). I think there is much we can learn about trusting God from this ancient man and this modern woman. And there is much we can learn both as the community of Crossroads Church and as individuals.
So let’s spend a few minutes now retelling Abraham’s story, drawing from the Scripture readings today as well as others we find in the Scriptures about Abraham that we couldn’t cover today.
When we first met Abraham in Scriptures, he and his wife Sarah were living in the city of Haran, a city in Northern Mesopotamia. For those of you who are observant, you will also note that at this point in time, Abraham was known as Abram and Sarah is known as Sarai. Their names would be changed later on to reflect their calling in life. Abraham after all means father of the multitudes, which describes his call well, ……. but I am getting ahead of myself.
So Abraham and Sarah lived in Haran. Years before, they had migrated there from a city called Ur of the Chaldeans in Southern Mesopotamia. They had originally headed out for the land of Canaan but when they got to Haran, they settled there and remained there for many years.
While we don’t know for sure, we can imagine that Haran was a good place to live - that they had many of the comforts that an ancient city had to afford at that time and that they felt comfortable with the culture of the people there, after all, they were still in Mesopotamia. Why ever leave?
But one day, God said to Abraham, “I want you to leave Haran with your wife and go to the land I will show you. And you will become a great nation, and I will bless you, and your name will be great. And all nations will be blessed through you.”
As you can imagine, this call by God was an unusual circumstance for a number of reasons. First, it was interesting because Abraham was from a place where they worshipped many gods – Ur of the Chaldeans, his original home, in fact was known for its worship of the moon god in particular. Somehow though, in all this, God had broken through and revealed Himself to Abraham as the true living God who could be trusted, and Abraham believed in Him.
This situation was also unusual because at this point, Abraham and Sarah were in their 70s (which in their time is middle-aged). You would have thought that God would have chosen someone younger to set out on such a long journey. But God did not. Abraham and Sarah were the ones.
And it is not because Abraham and Sarah were the epitome of wisdom and good judgment or that their faith never waivered–in fact, as we read on further in the Scriptures, we see both Abraham and Sarah made some very poor decisions indeed throughout their lifetimes and we also see their real lack of trust in particular moments– but nevertheless, we find that they were the right ones – right because God has chosen them and right because unlike many in their culture, they believed in God, the one true God, and they were even willing to leave their home and region behind, all that they knew, with all the risks that it entailed, in order to follow God and to see him fulfill the promise He had given to them.
And for sure, there were risks and challenges that they encountered all along the way. God said, “Go to the land I will show you” but guess what, when they got there, this land was already inhabited by people of another culture, and in addition, there was a famine, so they couldn’t even stay in the land if they wanted to. So almost immediately after they got to the place that God showed them, they had to depart to Egypt in order to find food, and as Scripture reveals, Egypt was no easy place for them to be, for example Sarah was for some time separated from Abraham, taken to the home of Pharaoh.
And then if that is not enough, there was the fact that God revealed another promise to Abraham along the way. He told him that he would have as may descendants as the stars in the sky, but guess what, as soon as Abraham arrived in Canaan, God said, by the way, your descendants will be slaves for hundreds of years – and not even in this land I am showing you and giving you, in a foreign country.
I am thinking that if I were Abraham, I would be thinking “Great God. Thanks for nothing and thanks for taking me on this crazy journey.”
Of course though, that is not what Abraham did. Despite some misteps along the way, He continued to follow and ultimately trust God, and as God promised He did bless Abraham, and Sarah alike and one of the significant ways he did this was by allowing Sarah to give birth to a son. The child of promise who would give rise to the many descendants that God promised Abraham was also Sarah’s child.
So overjoyed was Sarah with this blessing that when she gave birth to her son, she named him Isaac, which means laughter. After all, Sarah was in here 90s at this point – way past childbearing years. Even in her youth, when she should have been able to have children, she was unable. Yet, against all impossibilities, she now had given birth to a precious bundle of joy.
I do not know how this strikes you, but personally, as a woman who is one year short of forty who has always wanted children of my own but has not been blessed with a spouse or children, I can only imagine the great joy that I would have felt if I was in Sarah’s place. Unspeakable, deep-felt joy. I can imagine saying: Praise God for He is good! He has kept his promises! He has answered my prayers. He has seen me and understood the deepest desires of my heart and given me this wonderful gift. Thanks be to God and thanks be to God that I did not stay in Haran all those years ago. The gift of this baby far outweighs all the good I would have enjoyed had we not trusted God and left for the land that He has shown us. In that moment, if I were Sarah, I think I would have worshipped God more like a Baptist or a charismatic than my usually orderly Anglican self.
It was an amazing day, and Abraham and Sarah were blessed to have this child, a child who would go on to have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t fully know or understand this at the time, but through their descendants, the nation of Israel would be born and out of this nation, Jesus the Son of God, would come, and He would live, die, and rise again for the salvation of the world. The promise that God gave to Abraham that he would be a blessing to many nations ultimately was fulfilled in Jesus, 1000s of years after Abraham’s time
Why was it fulfilled? All because Abraham and Sarah were willing to leave their home, go out into the unknown, and trust that what God promised, God would fulfill.
This too, like the story of Gladys Aylward, is an amazing story, and for those of you who know the story well, I didn’t even tell you half of the story (including some of the most climatic points like the almost sacrifice of Isaac). But even without all the points of the story being told today, it is an amazing one and what I shared is enough for us to look at and see the common threads between Abraham’s and Glady’s stories.
As we place these stories side by side, we can see that both people trusted God and followed a call to leave their countries to go to an unknown place with foreign people. Both embarked on treacherous journeys and encountered delays, obstacles, set-backs, detours, and risky situations. Both ultimately received tremendous blessings due to their obedience to the calls, and finally both became a great blessing to many, many people, which after all, was the ultimate point of their call in the first place. For Gladys and Abraham, following their call was ultimately not about them, it was about something greater.
Of course, there is one big difference between Gladys and Abraham. While Gladys actually saw the blessings she poured out onto the people around her, Abraham did not. It the interesting thing about God’s call upon people. Sometime those who follow God see the fruits of their obedience and labor in their lifetime but sometimes the fruit comes after they have passed from this world. Yet thank goodness for those in this latter category that they did not give up when they didn’t see God’s promise fulfilled right away.
So the question for us now after hearing both stories, is what does this have to say to us – both as a community and as individual Christians. In the remaining time that I have with you tonight, I will talk about what this means for us as Crossroads and I ask that you prayerfully consider this week what this means for you more personally (as related or not related at all to this church plant).
Now at this point, many of us might be thinking – I seriously don’t feel some call to embark on a journey and go off to a distant, foreign place like Abraham or Gladys did and that is certainly not what Crossroads is doing, so how does this relate to us?
Well friends, if you are part of Crossroads Church Anglican, you actually have already embarked on such a journey – maybe not to a far-off place, but to an unfamiliar one – one that involves a city that is very new to most of us and one that involves starting a church from scratch (a long, time-intensive process that none of us have done before.) We have left the comforts of churches we love – the friendship that nurtured us, the music and liturgy that spoke deeply to us. Some of us have moved great distances to be a part of this. Some of us will be moving to Salem in the coming years. Some of us are and will be transitioning in our job situations because of it. Many of us have made and will continue to make financial sacrifices to see this come to fruition.
And yet, after a year of going on this journey together, some of you may be asking at this point, is it worth it?
One of the things we have going at Crossroads is a very sweet community – people who care about each other and look out for one another well. I can personally speak for myself that I have been moved deeply by the care, encouragement, and empowerment of the people of Crossroads. Leaving Washington State a year ago was very difficult for me, and in fact, throughout much of last year, I spent much of my time here in Massachusetts grieving that loss. Yet, no one ever made me feel weird about it. Everyone gave me the space I needed to grieve my loss. and welcomed me with open arms. As a result, Crossroads has become my family, and I have been deeply grateful for it.
This care and attention to people is a really lovely quality of our church. We should celebrate it!
Yet, at the same time, we might ask, what about the other aspects of our church? We are still very small. Our worship together on Saturday is nice but not very polished and perhaps even little awkward sometimes at this point – in large part to us all being stretched too thin and not having all the people we need for music, training of acolytes, etc., etc. We also can’t have the same types of bible studies and adult education that some of us like in other churches.
To be honest, these sorts of realities of being in a new church plant can be quite discouraging to us, and I can say that after after two years of church planting – first out West and now here – I have seen plenty of discouragement around church planting and have heard the question voiced numerous times, “is it worth it?”
And friends, I want to give you an answer – yes, I believe it is worth it. But this means hanging in there, even when this process takes longer than we hope it will take and even when there are aspects of the process that are less comfortable, less fulfilling to us, and just plain discouraging (and I know for a fact, friends, that almost of all us have experienced these feelings thus far). Pioneer church planting – that is starting a church from scratch with little resources as we are doing – is just plain hard.
And this where I believe we can greatly benefit from contemplating Abraham’s and Glady’s stories. Just as they had set-backs, discomforts, and delays, we as a church have had them too and will continue to have them at times.
One of our setbacks thus far has been that we have worked long and hard over the last year to have a presence on campus at SSU and up until just very recently (as in last week), all the doors have been closed on us.
Another setback has been that we have asked some people who love us and greatly support us with prayers and finances to come be with us on Saturdays and for the most part, they haven’t yet come. As a consequence, we have remained small, felt a bit alone at times, and have been all stretched too thin.
And there have been others setbacks too.
On the other hand, the good news is – like Abraham and Gladys, our journey has not been all set-backs and we have already seen tremendous blessing just as Abraham and Gladys saw blessings.
Our worship space is gorgeous and exactly in the part of Salem that we called to, our times of morning prayer have provided a space of hospitality and comfort for some folks in our community. We actually have some momentum with our coffee house idea and even have students at Gordon working hard to do research for us, which is pretty awesome. And I am now officially empowered to go and start a ministry to international students through Cru at Salem State. Blessings are coming friends.
But friends, as we all so well know, the full blessings, the full fruits of our prayers and labors are not here yet and may not be here for awhile, and that means that in the meantime, we are called to exercise a great deal of patience. We must sit in the incompleteness, sit in the tension of who we are and who we are called to become.
We must also constantly remind ourselves who these future blessings we look forward to are primarily for. For Abraham and Gladys, the blessings promised primarily were for others. The same is true for us. We are in this primarily to be a blessing to others, in our case the people of South Salem. This is why we are here.
Now, this doesn’t mean we won’t receive personal blessings along the journey. Like Sarah who was blessed with a child in her old age, we can expect individual blessings all along the way of this church planting process too, including the real blessing of growing in spiritual maturity (although this growth will probably feel more like bootcamp to us, to be honest).
And friends, this is all good and right for we follow a Savior who was willing to lay down his life so that others might have life. And that is what we are called to do in various ways in our lives, including in our life together as a church.
So friends, as I close tonight, let me ask two questions:
First, are we willing to continue to lay down our lives (not literally, but in terms of giving up some our comforts, expectations, time, and money) so that the Gospel which gives life can go out to the people in this city?
Second, do we trust that the God who created us and loves us will in fact provide for us and bless us even as we seek to be blessings to others?
These are important questions, friends, for us to continually put before ourselves and God as we continue on this journey together, but these are questions I believe that God will help answer for us if keep walking out in faith as Abraham and Gladys Aylward did.
Now may the God of Abraham and the God of Gladys Alyward keep you under the loving protection of his care and guide you in the directions you are to go in this season of your life and in the years to come. Amen!