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Matter Matters: The Fire in the Belly of Christian Faith

I’m a Christian for many reasons. Chief among them is the Doctrine of the Incarnation. But that sounds too abstract. Let me try to be clearer.

Every scrap, every jot and tittle, every tiny bit of matter matters in the grand scheme of divine reality, which includes everything, absolutely every tidbit of every last chunk of everything. Reflect on that in your own life and don’t stop when you come to something you think is trivial, silly, dirty, shameful, fleeting, self-indulgent, gratuitous, or unworthy. Everything matters. Matter matters, absolutely.

Or try this: ever stumbled on 40-year old baby clothes in the attic? Do you have a “junk” drawer full of ostensibly meaningless artifacts of a history about which no one knows anything? Ever find some photos that took you a moment to identify and place?

Matter matters. This peculiar grounding in matter for Christian faith came vividly to light this past weekend when the gorgeous and quirky little mission congregation where I have been affiliated since 1992 suffered a devastating fire on Saturday night.

The carpenter-Gothic gem of West Berkeley was built in 1878 and has lived through every earthquake since then, as well as 1960s Black Panther breakfasts in the parish hall, an MCC and an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation, Head Start and after-school tutoring programs, pioneering liturgies, ridiculously ambitious fund-raising schemes, scrappy communities of Gospel resilience and hope, and not a few moments when everyone wondered whether we would survive.

This fire is certainly not an end for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, but yet another beginning. But that’s not my point here. I invite you to look at, contemplate, and reflect on the photo posted here of Good Shepherd’s interior post-fire.

This photo breaks my heart and it re-energizes my hope. That confluence of grief and hope sits at the very heart of Christian faith and it shines forth from this photo. Notice the Eucharistic Table still standing there, bathed in light from the opening of the (sadly, tragically, horribly) destroyed stained glass window of the Good Shepherd.

The stained glass was destroyed but not the light, and it shines on the Table. For more than a century – for 134 years to be exact – that Table has borne witness to a truly astonishing and peculiar claim: God brings forth life from death. That is the kernel of the Gospel. We don’t just remember the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus at that table. We remember as well the promise of new life, of resurrection – of bodily life. Matter matters.

Both must be proclaimed, both the memory of pain and the hope of life. The former without the latter leads only to despair; the latter without the former leads only to utopia (literally “no place”). Christians live in that peculiar space in-between, that liminal space between sensible despair and ludicrous hope. Christians place a table in that space, and we share bread and wine there.

Good Shepherd has stubbornly and gracefully provided a witness to that Gospel claim in countless ways over the last 134 years. We have done so very rarely with platitudes or slogans. Good Shepherd “sheep” have been diverse, coarse, down-to-earth, and nitty-gritty in their spirituality – precisely what Jesus would expect. (The now-destroyed Good Shepherd window bore witness to all of this in the wonderfully eccentric “sheep” portrayed in it; we’ll just have to reproduce and update those markers in that window’s next iteration.)

I was sorely tempted over the last few days to deny how deeply saddened I am by this fire. I didn’t want to grant that much significance to a building. After all, the Church (with a capital “C”) is not physical structures but people.

Of course that’s true, but there’s more. Places, neighborhoods, buildings, sidewalks, stained-glass windows, baptismal fonts, altar books, historical records, and linens – all these things matter. Matter matters.

I share here just a few of my own memories of why the Good Shepherd space matters to me and I invite you to offer your own memories of your own spaces that matter in the comments. Let’s create an online tapestry of why matter matters. Just a few of my hallmarks:

  • Baptizing my godson, Louis Peterson, at the font that stood beneath a lovely stained glass image of an angel playing a violin;
  • The baptism of Paula White under that same violin-angel; she was baptized as an adult, and she actually plays the violin;
  • The day when James Tramel was released from prison, where he had been ordained, and stood beneath the Good Shepherd window with his faith family;
  • The blessing of the union between the Rev. Kathleen Van Sickle and the Rev. Barbara Hill back in the 1990s – a service designed by the congregation and approved by the bishop;
  • Passing the latest newborn baby around the congregation during a service, as if the baby belongs to everyone – which is true;
  • Ringing the bell in the tower on the first anniversary of the 911 terrorist attacks with Berkeley Fire Department representatives present; that tower originally served both the church and the surrounding neighborhood as the fire tower (graceful irony – that tower survived this fire!);
  • Overflow seating in the tiny narthex on an Easter Sunday morning as the building itself tried its best to accommodate joy.

Matter matters. All these memories and so many more are firmly attached to the fading wood, the yellowed glass, the unraveling carpet, the warped floors, the uncomfortable pews, the wheel-chair ramp, the pulpit that so many preachers have gripped with white knuckles, the nails in the beams where Christmas greens were hung, the Easter flowers were draped, and the Pentecost banners were tied…

Yes, matter matters. But so do the memories, which no fire can destroy. That’s the Gospel. Nothing is ever lost. All is bathed in the light of promise.

I am not grateful for the fire; I am grateful for the way its grief has reminded me of what matters.

(If you are so inclined, we Berkeley sheep of the Good Shepherd could use your financial help. Go here to make a secure online donation)

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How to Vote: Food and Sex Edition, 2012

Tax policy is important but mind-numbingly obtuse. Let’s cut to the chase – come November 6, will we cast our votes for a “you’re-on-your-own-and-good-luck-to-you” country or a “we’re-all-in-this-together” country?

Does Christian faith offer anything at all for how we might answer that question?

Let’s start with a five-pound roasting chicken, stuffed with pats of butter and a quartered onion. While it’s roasting, set the table with a lovely blue-and-yellow Provencal tablecloth, two plates of the “harvest pattern” china, two elegant wine goblets and a couple of candles.

You will also want to boil some red potatoes, assemble some cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes on a plate with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and open a bottle of wine. Cut some flowers from the garden and place them in a cut-glass vase on the table. Select the light jazz playlist on your iPod and get ready to greet your enchanting guest with a lovely hors d’oeuvre of smoked oysters and assorted cheeses.

You could also plan a tasty dessert. But dessert will probably entail something other than food.

If you don’t think food and sex have anything to do with politics or religion, you haven’t read your Bible lately (you do have one, right?). Food and sex are often deeply connected if not indistinguishable, especially when we throw religion into the mix, not to mention politics.

Two of the most basic human activities – eating food and having sex – have been the most frequently regulated human activities in nearly every society and historical era, and religion has most often been the means to regulate them. Politicians are usually the ones to insist on enforcing those regulations.

While a bit strange, that does make a certain kind of sense. I believe all humans share at least this much in common: the desire to be loved, to be cared for and wanted. The desire, in other words, for “communion.” That’s a potent and powerful desire, and sharing food and sexual intimacy are just two of the obvious ways to meet that desire.

Of course religious traditions and institutions will want to police something that potent. Look no further for evidence of this than the 50-year debate over whether lesbian and gay people can preside or even participate in the ritual meal of Christian communities, a meal called in some circles “Holy Communion.”

All of this came to mind as I prepared to preach this past Sunday on a set of rather peculiar biblical texts. The Hebrew Bible story about Eldad and Medad is one of my favorites (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29). The story begins with complaints about food but quickly morphs into a power struggle over legitimate membership.

The struggle emerges when the Spirit of God is poured out on all the elders of the people, including two of them (Eldad and Medad) who were not, as it were, on church property at the time. This of course prompts a scandal (they weren’t following the rules!) as well as a great aspiration from Moses, who longs to see the Spirit poured out on everyone.

So if you have ever been excluded, marginalized, left out, made to feel less than human because of your skin color, your body shape, your education, your gender, your sexual orientation, your socio-economic status, or just because you didn’t happen to show up at the right place at the right time – well then, Eldad and Medad are your patron saints! They’re standing right by your side, cheering you on.

The lectionary also included a portion from Mark’s gospel (9:38-50) and echoes the same theme but takes it a step further. Those who are not against us are for us, Jesus declares, and then he adds a warning. In everything you do and say, he insists, make sure that you don’t prevent anyone from believing in me.

Let’s put it this way: If a religious institution or religious leaders have ever blocked your path toward God, prevented your deeper engagement with the sacred, or made you stumble on your way into divine life, Jesus said it would be better for them to tie a big boulder around their necks and jump in the ocean.

He then goes on to say even harder stuff about cutting off body parts if they are offensive, which would be better than missing out on the big heavenly banquet that is yet to come.

I read this admittedly unsavory gospel passage as an urgent reminder: nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than following our desire for divine communion. And God help those who block any person’s path toward that desire!

I read this passage, in other words, as a proclamation of the ridiculously offensive generosity of the Gospel. God invites everyone to the feasting table – no exceptions, no kidding. The ones we like and the ones we avoid; the ones we admire and the ones we despise; the ones who seem to us so clearly deserving and those who seem worthy of nothing but punishment – all of them, all of us, are invited to the Table, no exceptions, no kidding.

Early Christian frescoe of an “agape feast.”

“Ridiculously offensive” generosity of the Gospel? Yes. How could it not be in a world such as ours so deeply marked by unrelenting divisions, violent hostility, and entrenched partisan and sectarian bickering? These divisions are actually so deep that they just seem “natural.”

Make no mistake: regardless of one’s political loyalties, it is deeply offensive to suppose that not a single one of those dividing lines matters. That is the good news of Christian faith. We really are all in this together.

Make no mistake about this, either: there are indeed religious communities today – from Minnesota to New Jersey and San Francisco – that are policing, monitoring, and regulating who may have access to the feast of divine generosity. These communities and their leaders are doing this based on whom people choose to love. This should be a source of deep outrage for all people of faith, just as it was for Jesus.

God sets the Table and invites everyone, without exception.

All of this might not help you make ballot decisions about everything, but I hope it inspires you to proclaim the kind of good news that really could change the world. And our world longs to hear it, that eternal call of the Lover to the Beloved: “Come, my love, the feast is ready; and I have prepared it just for you.”