Cleansing the Blood

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

October 8, 2000

II Corinthians 5:14-21; John 1:1-16

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight God, our strengthen and our salvation. Amen.

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On Tuesday night, October 6, 1998, Matt Shepard, a 21 year-old gay University of Wyoming student stopped in at the Fireside Bar in downtown Laramie for a drink. A day later in the early evening of Wednesday, October 7th, a mountain biker named Aaron Kreifels found Matt laying on his back, head propped against a buck fence, legs outstretched, hands lashed behind him and tied barely four inches off the ground to the fencepost. When sheriff's deputy, Reggie Fluty arrived at the scene just a few miles outside Laramie, she stated that at first she thought Matt was a preteen because he was so small - 5'2" and 100 lbs. When she described Matt's brutally disfigured face, she said that the only spots not covered in blood were the tracks cleansed by his tears. His skull was so badly beaten through the pistol whipping he had received that his brain was showing in places.

Aaron Kreifels told reporters and police that he first thought Matt was a scarecrow flopped on the ground , maybe some kind of Halloween joke staged a few weeks early. Later, songwriters would use the image of the scarecrow and crucifixion style of murder when eulogizing Matt. Meanwhile, in his own hometown of Casper, a fraternity would place a fence and a scarecrow on a float in the homecoming parade one week later, with a sign above the scene with hateful words against gays.

Miraculously, and despite severe hypothermia, Matt Shepard survived his beating and torture. Although he was comatose and likely to survive only in a vegetative state from the point at which he was found, Matt was still breathing. Matt was taken to Laramie's city hospital and eventually life flighted to Fort Collins for additional care. In the early morning hours of October 12, 1998 - before the sun had risen - Matt Shepard died.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, his abductors, torturers and ultimately his murderers were captured by Thursday October 7, originally arrested for disorderly conduct having returned to town following the abduction and torture of Matt and having started another fight. They confessed to the crime and were arraigned in court with hundreds of people present on Friday, October 9. In the courtroom documents stating the charges against them, it became clear that they had tricked Matt into believing they were gay and convinced him to go with them for a ride. Once in the car, McKinney struck Matt continuously on his head with the butt of the pistol. McKinney later said, "He kept begging for his life, but I told him `we're not gay, you just got jacked.'" Sickness and grief choked the hundreds of people in the courtroom as the charges were read against the assailants and their girlfriends (charged with aiding the criminals after the attack) and the words kept being repeated, "During the incident, the victim was begging for his life."

Matt Shepard's funeral was held, Friday, October 16, at St. Mark's Church in Casper, Wyoming. While over 1,000 people stood vigil outside from all over the country, in the cold and snow, only family and close friends were inside for the service. In her eulogy, Rev. Ann Kitch remembered her cousin Matt as a gentle man who had the desire "to help, to nurture, and to bring joy to others." That day, Matthew Shepard was laid to rest - a child of God, at peace eternally. (Information in the preceding section was drawn from Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder, Beth Loffreda, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2000.)

The horrors of this crime are vivid and painful to hear again. They are painful for me to speak, again. Nevertheless, Matt Shepard's death was only one of at least 33 anti-gay murders in 1998, which included a beheading in Virginia and a vicious beating unto death in Georgia. And since then hate crimes have continued, including the recent shooting and murder last month in a Roanoke, Virginia gay bar by a man whose last name was "Gay" and attacked the patrons out of insane vengeance for the way he believed his name was "misused."

As we worship tonight on the second anniversary of Matt Shepard's death, we know that the life of this one man and the torturous death inflicted upon him has changed us. Although we don't know all the answers to "why" this death has affected us so deeply, we do know, that he will always be remembered by us as a martyr in the non-violent war against hate. In the aftermath of Matt's death the Shepherd Initiative was formed here in Columbus. Spelled in a way that reflects "The Good Shepherd," Jesus Christ, Shepherd Initiative is a collective of Christians who feel deeply that the unreconciled sins of the church - Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, Free Church, and Fundamentalist - on issues of homosexuality and Christian faith need to be challenged, confessed, forgiven, redressed, and changed.

The initial meeting for SI was held in November 1998 at the Stonewall Union Offices on N. High Street and was called together by the compelling vision and faith of Mark Matson and others who believed and continue to believe that reconciliation of all persons, of all sexual orientations to God and in God are possible through Christ Jesus. Matt Shepard's murder was a hideous crime which sparked the fire that is now burning for change in Central Ohio in the interfaith community and I, among so many others, feel deeply blessed by the leaven for the loaf which is the Shepard Initiative. But, now God is calling the rest of us to respond. How shall we answer?

Upon hearing the Rev. Dr. Mel White speak at the recent "Amazing Grace" Conference sponsored by the Shepherd Initiative, I was captivated by his call to use Gandhi's "satyagraha" in the battle against hatred and injustice. In Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes "satya" is "truth" which equals love and "graha" is "force." So the word literally means "truth force" or "love force." It was truth-force or soul-force which compelled King and Gandhi's movement of social change. Mel White and the people of "SoulForce" are calling us to use the same strength of God in the movement for change today.

The power of satyagraha comes from calling forth the power of love - love of God, of self, of neighbor and of enemy. The 10 commandments of the Civil Rights movement were as follows:

1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation - not victory.

3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.

4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all people might be free.

5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all people might be free.

6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

9. STRIVE to be good in spiritual and bodily health.

10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain of the demonstration. (Found in A Testament of Hope, p. 537, an excerpt from Why We Can't Wait).

The essence of these promises and commandments call each person committing to the movement to be disciplined, loving, courteous, prayerful and much more. The power of this soulforce is nothing short of the power of love - God's love and Christ Jesus' love - such love leads us to love our enemies - something we must be able to do or all will be lost.

But how do we love our enemies? In II Corinthians 5:14-21, the Apostle Paul directs us to an answer to this question. By embracing our faith in Christ and our knowledge that we are loved by Christ, we begin to noticeable overcome the fear that is within us. Fear may make us do what another demands, but it never effects conduct in the same basic way that love does. Those who are loved, I John 4:19, tells us will love both those who love them and others. Although love appears powerless in the face of hatred, the cross of Christ betrays weakness. (I Corinthians1: 18-25). Love has a power of its own which is not to be measured in terms of ordinary strength or force. Love enables martyrs to endure much. And the love of Christ in the cross, Paul points out, is a love for ALL - And - Paul probably means all human beings, not just all Christians!

In II Corinthians 5:16-17, Paul continues to speak to the fact that human judgments are not only inadequate, but they are also delivered with prejudice, bias, and self interest in mind. Not so with the spirit of God! "The old has passed away, and behold the new has come" (17b). When we or others are made new it is because God has acted, because God has reconciled, because God can change human nature, because God has the transformational power of love capable of changing lives. Or in the words of John's Gospel, it is because "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).

The darkness is constant and ever-present. Hate is the shadow side of darkness itself. Hate constantly seeks opportunities to take over human nature and destroy God's love. Hate comes out of the shadows of darkness to show its face in bias crimes which are racial, ethnic, gender oriented and sexual in nature. And hate enters our office places, schools, homes, and churches through distasteful jokes or language which destroys self-esteem and washes out hope in a person who is hit with words or acted against unjustly.

In Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation, the contemplative monk writing 40 years ago speaks of hatred this way:

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify the sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self. In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it. We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice. On the contrary, we naturally tend to interpret our immoral act as an involuntary mistake, or as the malice of a spirit in us that is other than our self. Yet at the same time we are fully aware that others do not make this convenient distinction for us. The acts that have been done by us are, in their eyes, "our" acts and they hold us fully responsible (from the essay "Fear is the Root of War").

To overcome the darkness, the evil, the hatred in this world will require of each of us a belief and deepening faith in God. To overcome the hatred of this world will require a commitment to nonviolence and the principles of peace found and lived in Jesus Christ.

Tonight, carry with you the image of Matt Shepard's blood covered face with only the streaks from his tears cleansing the blood. Those tears are the tears of angels and the tears of Christ. Archbishop Oscar Romero, 20 years ago on the eve of his own martyrdom while celebrating mass in San Salvador's Cathedral said in his final mass - "May the blood of the martyrs water the seeds of the resurrection." May our witness be one of hope, nonviolence, and a ceaseless commitment to live as Resurrection people in the face of Matthew Shepard's crucifixion and the violent deaths of countless others. The seeds of resurrection have been watered by the blood of Matt Shepard and so many other innocents murdered by hate. The seeds of Resurrection are growing into full, flowering witness! The light has come into the world in Christ Jesus and the darkness will never overcome it! Amen.

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