Friday, September 24, 2010

What I Learned At Church: a sermon

I decided to write my last Beresheth sermon about the church, since I’m leaving it. Not leaving the church entirely, mind you. Just leaving my position as FBC’s Minister to Young Adults and of Creative Discipleship… leaving working for the church in an official capacity.

I thought about preaching about transition, but I’ve already preached on that subject six times since Beresheth started four years and 9 months ago, so after much thought, and whining, and staring at the clock, it finally came to me… I would write about what I learned at church.

Again, not specifically this church mind you, although this church has taught me a lot and will inevitably make its way into this piece. This is not a farewell sermon to FBC, but rather a sermon about the church in general, what the “little c” church has taught me in my life.

And so, here we go…

What I Learned At Church

I learned at church that you’re supposed to dress up. Apparently God has good taste in fashion and prefers that we look our best. This was not a plus for me as a child because I hated dresses and mary janes, and while my younger sister Amy probably thought dressing up for church all the way down to her ruffley-little-girl-underwear was a little slice of heaven, I hated it. I much preferred in college finding more casual churches. But even at my “it’s cool to dress down at church” churches, I discovered one wanted to look one's best even if one’s best is holey jeans and a hip tee-shirt. For what I discovered as a teenager was that we wanted to look our best not for God, but for the boys we would meet at church, and in college, for the men we would marry.

Except I didn’t marry a man I met at church (or any man at all) which leads me to something else I learned at church. You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Even the “really good Christian boys” who wear slacks to church with pressed shirts tucked in and a belt that matches their either black or brown shoes respectively can break a good Christian girl’s heart, for boys will always be boys and girls will always be girls.

And in that regard, people will be people and the world’s greatest criticism of the church is also what I find to be the most encouraging thing I learned at church… it’s full of broken people. Yep, we have the same number of scoundrels as the country club you belong to or the PTA board you’re on, as many hypocrites as you vote into office and then rip their bumper sticker off your car, as many jerks and sluts and liars and cheats as Enron or the Red Light district or Wall Street.

Why? Because I have not come for the well. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick, Jesus said.

And the church is full of sick people. Now granted, I wouldn’t mind it if one or two more of them were also in therapy as well, but at the very least I’m glad they’re (we’re) in church. Because that’s the best part: God chooses to work with us, with humanity. Sometimes I just read the genealogy list in Matthew chapter 1 over and over again. Whereas most people skip the genealogies, I love them, for they remind me that God works the most with the most ordinary people. So the same people you see in the drug store, or picking up their kids from school, or at Opal Divine’s are the same people who are in church because God is in the business of redeeming people.


And speaking of, there’s quite a variety of us. This I also learned at church. Red and Yellow, Black and White. I swear I was in high school before I realized there weren’t actually red people walking around on some continent they hadn’t yet gotten to in social studies. I asked my father when I was a little girl if there really were red and yellow people to which he responded yes, and since parents always tell the truth to their children, I believed him. Granted, he should have gone on at that time to explain the nuances of color beyond the eight colors I had in my crayola box, but I don’t fault my father for my over-active imagination.

At church I’ve met so many different types of people. Singers and doctors and architects and postal workers and teachers and lawyers and dress-makers and stay-at-home-parents and the list just goes on and on. And really none of them looked the same or smelled the same or spoke the same way. Despite being primarily at white, middle-class churches all my life, we did have a good deal of diversity. And if we didn’t, we traveled to places to meet new kinds of people and form new relationships to diversify ourselves. And the church taught me not to love people discriminatorily by sizing them up with my eyes, but to love with my hands (which are God’s) and my heart (which is God’s) and my wallet (which is God’s) and my voice (which is God’s). The church taught me from the very beginning that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor male nor female for we are all one in Christ Jesus. And I learned at church how to treat everyone fairly if I believed that was true.

The church taught me much about relationships. (Not just about dating). The church taught me how to love my mother and father while at the same time count my relationship to my heavenly Mother and Father above all love I would experience here on earth. The church taught me how to respect authority – ministers, teachers, leaders – and later, when I was the authority, how not to abuse that position. The church taught me how to live the church’s mission which has an open door policy and also how to guard myself against wolves that sneak in covered in sheep clothing.

The church taught me that above all grace reigns, and that everyone deserves a second or third chance. The church also taught me about my own second and third chances though, and the church taught me that sometimes, in order for me to be healthy, I have to say good-bye to people who take too many chances with me. I learned at church that hope wins and despite what the world teaches me about poverty, war, prejudice, and ignorance, hope wins in my own life and hope will one day win the world over.

The church taught me that I too play a role in the demoralizing and demolishing of this world and for this I must confess my sin as an individual and as a participant in a larger community. It is my responsibility, the church taught me, to live out Christ’s mission of abundant life both personally and communally.

And I think it is for this that I am most grateful. My favorite verse in the Bible used to be, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young but set an example for all believers.” On my 20th birthday, I cried because I thought that couldn’t be my favorite verse anymore (oh for the days when turning 20 meant getting old!). But now, my favorite verse is this… “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”

And while I could go on and on about what I’ve learned in church (both good and bad things!), it is this last lessen for which I am currently the most grateful. The church taught me that my relationship with Jesus Christ is one of abundant living. And because of my hope in Him, I can live happily, in freedom, no matter what my circumstances.

And so I’m off, despite the wonder that is First Baptist Church, to do more abundant living in the world. My thanks to the “little c” church and the “big C” of First Baptist Church for teaching me so much about life and God and wonder thus far.

But as I leave, I wonder, and leave you with the question I started with…

What, my friends, did you learn at church?

Friday, September 10, 2010

And Doubt

Faith and Doubt is the subject for this week.

Faith. And Doubt.

And Doubt.

Not OR Doubt. AND Doubt.

Paul Tillich once wrote that doubt is an element of faith. So our topic is Faith and Doubt.



And yet we treat doubt like the ugly older sister. The unwanted bastard child of our young mother’s innocence shattered. The way we were before we made our money.

But even the ugly duckling turned into a swan. Even Scrooge found the Christmas Spirit. Even Shrek got married.

At the end of the movie Moulin Rouge, Toulouse Lautrec (the midget who plays the magical sitar) while nursing a heart-broken Christian (played by Ewan McGregor) says to him, “Christian, you may see me only as a drunken, vice-ridden gnome whose friends are just pimps and girls from the brothels. But I know about art and love, if only because I long for it with every fiber of my being.”

And I think Doubt could be looked at the same way. We see it only as a lack of faith; write it off as weak and untrustworthy, something only the heathen and the shallow of heart succomb to.

When in reality doubt may be more intimately intertwined with Love than we first imagined.

And so sometime I like to kid, “Doubt, you old friend. Where have you been keeping yourself? Welcome back doubt, welcome back.”

Welcome back, Doubt. Welcome back.

And it always comes back doesn’t it? Usually followed by sadness for me. Maybe confusion for you. Or frustration. Or a sense of failure.

Or maybe it invigorates you. You’ve gotta find the answer to the doubt so you read and pray and seek the wisdom of people you look up to, and by God that doubt’s gonna get it’s due once you’ve found an answer. Doubt fuels the faith! Nothing a little research can’t take care of.

Or maybe doubt just makes you tired, and while you don’t want to slam it shut, you do close the door on faith, the church, even God. And maybe if you shut it quietly enough, like a teenager who’s been out past curfew, no one will hear it close.

Like the Dixie Chicks wrote of heartache, doubt always comes back, “I’ve been expecting you. Come in and wear your welcome out the way you always do.”

Cause sometimes doubt is exhausting! What if Jesus had responded in the desert, “Yes! I’ll take the fame, devil. Nice cars, the best wine, sexy women, red carpets. Fame and Power is where it’s at! And while you grant me those things in exchange for saying you are Lord, please book me a nice dinner at Uchi too because I haven’t eaten in 40 days and. I. Am. Starving!”

Doubt walks with us when we’re in need. When we haven’t eaten for 40 days. When we’re physically or mentally or relationally or spiritually traumatized. Doubt is there. But doubt is not the temptation. It is our reason just trying to fix the situation, just trying to make us well.

Doubt is not the enemy. Doubt is not Satan knocking on your door ready to offer another wager, hedge another bet against you. Doubt is just the other part of faith, the yang to the yen, the egg to the chicken.

And I wonder, what if one is supposed to come from the other so that we don’t know which came first? What if Faith spawns doubt and doubt gives way to faith? And they’re just two elements of the mixture we call Christianity?

I know it seems crazy, but even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, crying tears of blood beseeched God, “If it is possible, take this cup away from me!” And for me that’s doubt: the recognition of the other. There is the choice. One or the other. Doubt. But it is also doubt that leads to the confession, “Not my will, but Yours.”

Without the recognition of the other, is there any choice at all? Without doubt can there even be faith?

What if Jesus had never wavered? What if instead of a night of prayer in the Garden he threw an all-night party celebrating his faith in God that all the suffering and abandonment and death would be worth it? What if?

Sometimes I wonder if the more I doubt the closer I am to finding the truth… if there is even truth to find. What I mean by that is, I’m not searching for a dogma, I’m not interested in a set of rules to help me navigate life, I’m not looking for a belief-system that will secure my seat in the heavenly beyond. Rather, I seek to find the truth of who God is and who I am and whether or not we have anything to do with one another.

I know it’s confusing: this thing we call faith, this life we call journey. But if doubt is the recognition of the other, and the other teaches us more about the nature of God which is always love, then when we are changed by that encounter with love, we can be thankful for our doubts. It’s cyclical see? Cyclical. Like the world God created, like the three in one that God is, like the dust we have come from and the dust to which we shall return.

And so with our doubts and with our faith, we forge forward toward love, making the best decisions we can along the way. And the way is not easy. And seeing the other, our many choices, may lead us astray. Even then though, doubt wins when we recognize we are lost, for doubt has entered our minds to show us the other, this time being Love, and doubt reminds us that maybe there is more to this life than what we have found, and doubt leads us back to love.

Love is doubt. Doubt that we will make it through, but Faith that God will be with us all the way. Doubt that we could ever do this on our own – for look at the world and the mess we’ve made, but Faith that God will redeem that which is broken. Doubt that God even exists for how can Love win in a world like this, but Faith that even among stable filth can a Savior be born.

Faith and Doubt.

Love. Both.

Ann Pittman
Beresheth Sermon
September 9, 2010

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Creativity of God

“What is the creative work of God in our lives?” a friend asked me the other day.

I love this question. I could have been asked something hard like… “What is the work of God?” That would have been question enough. Or “What or Who is God in our lives?” Also a doosy. But add the adjective “creative” to qualify the work of God in our lives, and I’m delighted. I love to talk about God’s creative side.

You see, if I know anything about God, I know She’s creative. And if I have proof of anything in my life, it’s that She’s at work.

I mean, have you read the Bible?

Who takes a tiny rib and fashions it into an entire woman?
Who takes a shepherd who stutters and sends him off to talk to Pharaoh?
Who gives courage to the littlest boy to stand up to the biggest giant?
Whose prophet lies naked in the street for a whole year just to get the attention of the people?
Who takes a loaf of bread and two fish and feeds five thousand?
Who sends a baby in a feeding trough to be the Savior of humankind?

And if you think that’s just good rhetorical style, making a hero out of a fool, a heroine out of the least likely character, fine. Let’s move on to the world around us.

Who painted stripes on the zebra or spots on the ladybug?
Who made the elephant and the bulldog and called them good?
Who gave the nightingale his song, the hyena his cackle and the monkey his screech?
Even the mosquito is a fascinating creation, though I think it might have been a mistake on God’s part.
And could you get much more creative than a duckbill platypus?

And the moon how it shines, silver in the dark sky…
And the colors of the sunset that are never quite the same…
Or the giant redwoods looming to the heavens and the little pansies prettying up the ground…
The magnolia blossom, the Venus flytrap, the white pussy willows cradled against a branch…
All the created world reveals the nature of God, Romans 1 says…

But maybe that’s not evidence enough to the creative nature of God. Romans 1 goes on to say that many will see the natural pointing to the supernatural and still lack faith. So, let’s move on to the work of God in our lives.

Who orchestrates a giant fish to swallow a racist, selfish man and have him spit out three days later ready to convert and love a people he used to hate?
Who heals the heart of a man hidden in a tree, so that he returns to the community four times what he stole from them during his tax collecting days?
Who can change the heart of one who held the coats of those who killed Christians and give him a love for Christ?

And that’s just the Bible. There are plenty of stories in my life and your lives about God changing hearts, changing minds and redeeming the people of God to new life.

Who warms hearts so that in compassion people share what they have with the people around them?
Who forgives a man his wrongdoing and who helps him to forgive those who wrong him?
Who helps a woman learn how to love her enemies?
Who takes the monsters we call teenagers and turns them into decent, functional, and even lovable adults? J

Who calls us gently and softly to a higher living, a nobler cause, a more humble worldview a more just, if upside down, world?

Our God is creative. It takes a lot of ingenuity to make a sinner a saint… Look at King David. God had to use a clever fictional story about a man and his sheep to get King David to realize that he had stolen a woman who was not his.

It takes a lot of creativity to make a boy a man… to make a caterpillar a butterfly… to make a carpenter a Savior.

Maybe God likes the challenge.

Cause it’s gotta be difficult. It’s not like we make it easy on God what with our fighting families and cliquish communities and political wars. With our uneven distribution of wealth, our inadequate healthcare provisions and our inability to even share our food. What with our date-rape drugs and porn magazines and money invested in military weapons instead of schools and education for our children… it’s not like we’ve made it easy for God to be with us. To even find us underneath the layers plastic surgery and smog-filled skies, underneath the layers of self-deceit and aggrandized egos and low self-esteem, somewhere caught in the cycles of poverty and abuse and mis-education, it’s a wonder God can even find us let alone work in us.

And yet, God does. God says yes to us just as we are. And God commits to continue to work creatively in our lives, calling us back to what we once knew to be true… that God is God and we are God’s children.

I love the Genesis 1 account of creation because after everything was created, it says God made humankind and called us very good. I like the Genesis 2 creation story too where God gets down in the dirt and mud and forms a man and then, worried that the man will be lonely, gets a little creative with His creature and makes a woman. Our God not only used imagination to create chameleons and flamingos and bougainvillea, but God was creative with us too. And continues to be creative in the way God interacts with us on a daily basis! God continues to love, forgive, push, sustain, and call us to live faithfully. And so must we muster what imagination we have to confess and one day believe that God is mysterious and God is good. For God will continue to give us stories to convict us, give us nature to humble us and give us one another to encourage us that God is still God and we are still God’s people called to live life abundantly… creatively… and with a little spoonful of imagination.

Beresheth Sermon
FBC Austin
September 2, 2010