Friday, October 26, 2018

Resting Place for Matt

Twenty years ago, our family was plunged into horror when one of us, Matthew Shepard, was beaten and left to die. I am related to Matt by marriage. My husband Jim is Matt’s cousin, and they grew up together in Casper, Wyoming. I first met Matt when he was six year’s old. And because this is what we do as families, I preached at Matt’s funeral in 1998.

That day twenty years ago, I carried Matt’s ashes in my lap as we passed through a gauntlet of haters with ugly words and ugly signs in order to arrive at the church. I was assaulted by one such sign which claimed that Matt was in hell. I knew better. I knew that Matt was God’s beloved. And I knew that Matt loved God. And I knew we had to drown out that vicious hate with words and signs and songs of love. And that is exactly what happened.

Judy and Dennis Shepard have continued in courageous and astonishing ways to speak love into the darkness. They continue to inspire me. Today we gathered at the Washington National Cathedral to lay Matthew to rest--his final resting place. Today was filled with beauty and sorrow and solace. Once again Judy and Dennis opened their lives and their hearts and invited us all to be there with them. Once again, Matt’s spirit released a flood of goodness into the world.

Below I offer again the words I preached twenty years ago. Because I am a follower of Jesus, my words of faith are Christian words. But I believe that God’s love is beyond the comprehension of any human heart and of any one religious construct.  It is clear to me that we can never stop speaking love and working tirelessly to combat the wickedness and evil which rebel against God and strive to destroy the beloved of God. All of creation is God’s beloved. Especially Matt.

The Rev. Anne E. Kitch
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Casper, Wyoming
October 16, 1998

Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says.

How can we not let our hearts be troubled? How can we not be immersed in despair? How can we not cry out against this? This is not the way it is supposed to be.

A son has died. A brother has been lost. A child has been broken, torn, abandoned. We become lost in a turbulent stream of emotions. Grief. Anger. Guilt. Fear. Shame. Outrage. Bewilderment. Loss. Our hearts are deeply troubled. They cry out, No. No. No. Not Matthew. Not now. Not this way.

We come here today to mourn Matt. We come here today to offer our broken hearts. We come here today in the name of love. Because ultimately it is love that binds us to Matt: the love of a family. Matt's family is like any family, sharing life, family meals, arguments, games, Christmas trees. We come here today, in the name of family love. We gather in this church, in the name of God's love. Because in the midst of this horror, in the midst of this hateful crime, Christ's love abounds.

Make no doubt about it. Matthew is loved: by his parents, by his brother, by his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, family all gathered here — by God. It is that love, which has radiated out of the midst of this tragedy. Love which empowers his parents to speak compassion, rather than condemnation. Love which inspires his friends to acts of prayer and witness. Love which is more powerful than any voice of hate. That is God's love.

We are able to love one another, because God first loved us, created us out of love, lovingly breathed life into us so that we might be part if this good creation. We are able to love one another because God showed us how, sending a Son into the world to live with us, love with us, die for us. “Love one another, just as I have loved you,” said Jesus as he prepared to die. And Jesus died, and Jesus rose again overcoming death and fulfilling a promise, offering eternal life to all. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ abundant life is promised for Matt.

Matt: a young man who met the world with eager expectation, who offered trust and friendship easily, lived honestly. Matt trusted in the goodness of God's world, reveled in God's creation, allowed people into his heart. When you met Matt, you met Matt. For a small person, he had great presence: one of the things that made him shine on the stage. Matt was not always a winner according to some of the world's standards. He struggled in many ways: to survive as an infant, to fit into a world that is not always kind to gentle spirits. But Matt was a light to the world according to a different set of standards. What was important to Matt, was to care: to help, to nurture, to bring joy to others in his quiet, gentle way. I think Matt would be somewhat bewildered by all this attention on his account.

Dennis and Judy have said, that Matt believed if he had made one person's life better in this world, then he had succeeded. I think judging from the world's response over the past few days, Matt will have made a difference in the lives of thousands.

And I believe Matt has shown us the way out of the abyss into which his murder has plunged us. Matt has shown us the way from violence, hate, despair. We may doubt that now. Like the disciple Thomas doubted when Jesus spoke the words we heard today from John's gospel. Jesus was saying farewell to his friends. He was preparing them for his death. So he gathered them together around a family meal and he spoke: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe in me." And he promised that they would be able to follow him to eternal life in God’s loving house, that they would be able to sit around God's kitchen table. But Thomas cried out in his fear and despair, "How? How can we know the way?"

Today we may cry out, How? How can we know the way out of the abyss? How can we love? How can we live? And the answer is there. "I am the way, the truth, the life." Jesus has gone before us. Jesus, a beloved son whose body was broken, torn, abandoned, hung on bars of wood by his accusers. Jesus who stood in the face of hate and offered the door to eternal life. This Jesus is here for Matt, is here for each of us. This Jesus promises to prepare a place for each of us in God's heavenly kingdom. All we are asked to do is believe. Believe in God. Believe in Christ. Believe in a love that conquers all — even death.

Matt believed. Matt believed enough to become baptized in this church as a teenager. Matt believed enough to bring his family with him to church. Matt believed enough to see the overwhelming goodness in God's creation and in each person he met. Matt believed. Matt lived. Matt loved. And we can too, because God loves us and nothing can separate us from that love. That is God's promise. This is what the apostle Paul wanted so fervently for us to understand. That we could count on this promise to change our lives. As Paul says, "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

So I invite you to come, offer your broken hearts here. Lay down the burdens that you have been carrying for Matt's sake. Allow yourself to fall into the loving arms of God, who will hold you, keep you, comfort you while you begin to mourn Matthew as he deserves — as you deserve.