Is There Anything to Celebrate about Matthew Shepard's Brutal and Agonizing Death?

Is There Anything to Celebrate about

Matthew Shepard's Brutal and Agonizing Death?

By Fr. Tony Clavier

ADDRESS AT ST. MATTHEW'S COMMUNITY EUCHARIST, meeting in Calvary Cathedral Sioux Falls 10/6/2002

St. Matthew 11: 27-30

We gather to celebrate the anniversary of a tragic death. "Celebrate" sticks in our throat. How can one "celebrate" the fact that a young man was brutally done to death by ignorant and bigoted peers? Is there anything to celebrate about Matthew Shepard's brutal and agonizing death?

In our fat contentment, we Christians have forgotten about persecution unto death. If our minds stray at all in that direction, we have visions of early Christians, in sparkling white robes, haloes in their correct place, grinning as they are torn apart by lions. Those who oppose people of a different sexual orientation are convinced that martyrs must be clones of those early saints. They can't see beyond the haloes and the white robes now nicely rendered in stained glass.

Contemporary Christian martyrs, in the Sudan for instance, are a mixed bunch of ordinary folk. No haloes. No white robes.

Faced with no danger except perhaps that of being thought eccentric, most contemporary Christians are in the closet. Ask an Episcopalian if she is a Christian and she'll come out with something vacuous like "I'm trying to be." If one asked the same person whether she was an American and received the answer, "I'm trying to be" one would think such a reply very odd indeed.

Of course one can call someone "un-American" but that's normally for committing such deadly sins as not voting for George Bush or wearing a flag as a patch on one's jeans. Even the term "un-American" doesn't imply that a person has been deprived of citizenship.

Perhaps all of you have been baptized. In baptism we receive a status which cannot be taken from us by any power on earth. In baptism we become children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of God. We are Christians because that is God's gift to us. God loves to give "free" gifts. What on earth is an un-free gift anyway? Gifts disguising control are not gifts at all. Even if you have not yet been baptized, you are made in the image of God and you are dear to God. Always remember that whatever others say about you or do to you.

But we have not yet become that which we shall be. While here we are a puzzling mixture, some would say of chemicals. (I can't get used to being a mobile test tube.) One of the most formidable drives in us relates to sexuality. The Church, apart from the Puritans, used to understand that. What attracts us to this person and not that, or this gender and not that? I have no idea. What does falling in love mean? I have no idea. Baptism doesn't seem to temper these urges and attractions. One has to wait for age to dull it all.

Not only do we have to live with our sexuality, we have to manage all sorts of other drives and urges. Each seems to have a positive and negative side. That is why we may well describe evil as good stood on its head. Love may heal and strengthen the lover and the beloved: jealousy may wound and weaken both partners. Sexual expression may be a sacrament of self-sacrifice, an offering to the beloved. Lust may be a devil's feast of self-love, grasped from the victim. No living human being ever gets it right.

We often think that "self-denial" is a call to weakness, to acquiescence in the face of wrong. It is no such thing. Self-denial is an acceptance of self as fallible, as a sinner to whom has been given the wonderful privilege of cross-bearing. "Sin" is living as if God doesn't exist. I'm not talking about creeds and theologies. It's how we sometimes badly behave when our best friend or partner can't hear or see us!!

Those who would exclude you from ECUSA offend in two ways. They offend against baptism. You are called and chosen. You are children of God and inheritors of the kingdom.

They offend because they think that God chooses perfect, sinless people who have everything under control. What remarkably vanity! What extraordinary lack of self-understanding!

I hope you do not want me to say that God loves you because you are heterosexual, gay or lesbian or some other description of sexuality. Even though God is obviously English, God doesn't love me especially because I was born there! As the old Gospel hymn puts it, God loves me "just as I am."

It is perfectly right for me as a priest, speaking for myself and to myself, to remind you that the urges, drives and passions, which so deeply obsess us, can become idols. People who worship idols demonstrate what that idol is like in their self-expression. Even our image of God may be an idol. The Judge God produces judging people filled with self-righteousness. The Love-God produces sentimental and self-indulgent folk. The God whom we see in the face of Jesus calls us all to a life of self-denial and sacrifice. It's the Jesus God whom we worship and adore.

It's difficult to use words like self denial nowadays. We are against giving anything up and we are certainly against pain. If we have to put up with physical pain we blame the doctor. It's for this reason that our anger about those who killed Matthew Shepard disables our ability to see anything redeeming in his death at all. We have to be careful with anger. Anger towards those who killed Jesus creates anti-Semites although curiously not anti-Romans.

You are probably beginning to realize that although laws educate, the world isn't completely changed by them. Young kids, like I was, who just couldn't do sports, are still degraded by their peers and teachers, and often assaulted. Blacks and now Arabs are type-cast and denigrated. Even our faith doesn't keep us from harm and tragedy. Yet if we seek God's grace to tackle whatever society or individuals do to us in a spirit of self-denial, accepting pain as part of cross-giving, we are embraced by our Jesus in whose path we tread. The cross-bearers change the world and transform society by daring to walk in and through life as it is. They don't merely lift high the cross on Sunday mornings.

A young university student, fairly new to town, stumbled into a bar. He was looking for something or someone to ease the aching pain of loneliness and frustration. He was vulnerable. Moralists would suggest that because he took such a risk, for such a reason, his was the initial blame. How far does that get us? If we think we have the morality thing tackled, to say "he was wrong" makes us feel good. It does no one else good. The moralist trivializes sin. The moralist suggests that burning insistent desire may easily be quelled by prayer and a cold shower.

Young Matthew drew out of his killers the greed passion and the hatred passion. Both urges were far more self-destructive and other destructive than Matthew's. And so Matthew died a slow and dreadful death strung up to cross posts and barbed wire. As he died, Matthew surely was met by the final object of all our passion and desire, the God-we-see-in-Jesus.

The rest of us, please God, are called to more usual self-denial; more usual pain. We are called to deny anything which turns our love-desires into idols, idols which demand more and more used people as sacrifices. We are called to embrace our own pain and that of others, to resist the powerful urge to become obsessed with the pain-idol and his friends, the bitterness-idol and the resentment-idol. Instead we are to offer our agonies of mind and body through the Cross itself. The Christian faith calls us as we are, on a journey of transformation, which is never constant, often retrogressive but always redemptive.

Celebrate a cruel death? We celebrate our own calling to be life-deniers, life-givers, pain bearers, because we begin to understand that in this seemingly offensive self-understanding there is none other than the way of life and peace. In this and every other Eucharistic feast, we celebrate a death: and are transformed by its redemptive power. The God-who-is-in-Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit miraculously keeps us in eternal life, frail and imperfect as we are. So may it be for all of us this evening. Amen


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