SERMON FOR SUNDAY OCTOBER 18, 1998
Children’s Sabbath

“Matthew Shepard Died For Our Sins”

CHRISTIAN GOSPEL:  “God Never Gives Up” ~ Luke 18:1-8

When today’s Gospel story goes to central casting, it will be interesting to see who gets the parts.  When people read the story about the woman who was pleading with the judge, begging for justice, it’s most usual for us to see ourselves as Christians in the position of being the ones doing the asking.  After all, the Scripture interpretation says that this story is to encourage the disciples to be constant in their prayer. 

The evil judge was not God, but instead a character designed to contrast with God.  So, as Jesus explains the meaning of the story, if you have an evil judge, concerned only about his own self-interest, who will still give a woman justice if she keeps asking and asking and asking, how much more quickly will God, who loves and cares about you, respond to your prayers.

It’s a good message, a straight forward message, important for the early church who found themselves struggling with a society that didn’t want them around, with a Jewish faith that was pushing them off to the side, and with the Romans who were persecuting them as a danger to the empire.  The word that came through the Gospel writers to the early Christians was: be persistent in your prayer. God will hear you and respond with compassion and justice.

But there are always remakes of movies and in those remakes, you can sometimes find some casting that’s innovative, something that will put a little different twist on the story.  Directors might take a cue from some of the other stories in Scripture where God is described as being a mother hen, covering her children with wings, or the woman potter who goes down to the bank of the river to shape the human from clay.  In another story, God is the old woman who has lost a coin and cleans her house, turning it upside down until that one coin is found.

There are many female images for God in the Scriptures so what if we cast God in the role of the persistent woman?  Where does that leave us then?  Our favorite role is no longer available.  If we still want to be part of the story, we might consider the possibility that we would be playing the role of the corrupt judge.  The meaning of the story changes.  Now we are the ones who don’t want to hear.  We are the ones who want to go our own way.  We are the ones who want to make our decisions based on what is expedient for us.  The one who is nagging, the one who is coming to us day after day is God saying, “But what about justice for me?  What about my cause?” The story, then, carries a different meaning.  It says that God will be persistent.  God will be constant.  God’s love will be forever.  God’s concern for justice will be never ending.

I think that we can look through the rest of Scripture to find confirmation for our new plotline.  Psalm 139 comforts us with the promise hat God will always be with us, that we will never find ourselves alone.  Paul says, “Powers, principality, angels, darkness, nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God that we know in Jesus Christ.”  It’s not an abusive Scripture to do recasting once in a while if the new story also brings to you a message that the rest of Scripture affirms.

We are often the corrupt judge who doesn’t hear about the needs of the most powerless in our society.  That’s why we celebrate Children’s Sabbath.  This day reminds us that, while things might be very good for our family and friends, there are many, many children in our country that are neglected or abused or who go to bed hungry or who have no support or guidance in school.  If we want to have a society that functions well, we need to be concerned about each and every member of that society.  As people of faith, we recognize that God’s love is for every child of God.  We have a responsibility to be concerned about those children in the world around us.

We’re called on to make sure that families to have a place to live, that there is food, that children have clothes to wear to school, that they have the supplies that they need to do their homework.  We’re called on to address  not only the immediate needs, but also to attack the sources of poverty.  We should be concerned about the laws and policies that contribute to the disparity between the richest and the poorest.

Children’s Sabbath reminds us that our faith should be at work in shaping public policy.  In that vein I was going to talk to you today about Referendum 49, a referendum that’s being touted as the answer to our transportation problems.  Bonds will be sold to gain money to make repairs over the next five years.  But the money will be paid back over twenty-five years and much of the money will come from the General Fund which means that if the economy falters in any way, and receipts for the General Fund drop, that there will be danger to all of the public services that our state provides. Money need for our schools and other social services will be already committed to paying off our debt on the road improvements.  That’s all I’m going to say about Referendum 49 because I want to talk to you about another one of our children.

You read about him in the newspaper this week:  Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one year old college student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, a freshman in political science, a young, gay man.  He was lured away from a bar, beat up, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence, and left hanging for eighteen hours.  When a bicyclist finally found him, he thought he was a scarecrow tied up to the fence until he looked more closely and discovered a human being.  Matthew was in a coma for five days before he finally died on Tuesday.  His story, his experience, touched people’s hearts across the country  There were candlelight vigils in many places, both while he was lying in a coma in the hospital and after he died.  The vigils were held expressing love and concern for Matthew, support for his family, and outrage that something like this could happen in our country.  There were articles in the newspapers that I know that many of you read.  There was one in the Eastside Journal on Tuesday morning.  It ended with a quote, “There’s an incredible symbolism about being tied to a fence,” said Rebecca Isaac’s, Political Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  “People have likened it to a scarecrow but it sounded more like a crucifixion.”  Whenever you hear of someone being lashed to a fence, tied to a tree, the image of crucifixion is one that could easily come to mind.  A young, gay man, crucified.  Jesus was crucified for the extreme beliefs of the people of his time.  Jewish leaders that felt that unless you followed the letter of the law there was no salvation from God.  Jesus challenged those laws and he was a threat.  He was also a threat because the Jews were afraid that the Roman Empire would sweep down on them and take away their religious freedom if they weren’t careful about the things that they said and did.

Jesus died because of the anger and the fear of his fellow Jews.  He died, as the Apostles would later say, for our sins.  Matthew Shepard died because of fear that people have of someone with a different lifestyle.  He died because of Christians who stand in judgment and say that the Word of God is clear: homosexuality is a sin and anyone who practices it is wicked and a partner with the devil.  He died because of our fears, because of our rules and because of the lines we draw between those who are accepted and those who are not.  And like Jesus, Matthew Shepard died for our sins.

Those of you who don’t like the Prayer of Confession on a Sunday morning, who don’t like the idea that somehow, there are flaws in us as humans, might not be comfortable with the idea that Matthew died for our sins.  After all, we are good, law abiding people.  We would never beat someone up or tie them to a fence or bring about their death.  In fact, the people in Laramie, Wyoming responded exactly the same way.  They said, “People all over the country are painting us as red-necks and gay haters and that’s not true at all. In fact, we are open-minded people who, on the whole, say ‘live and let live.’  We recognize people for their abilities and accept them for who they are.  What has happened here in our community is not true of all of us.”  It’s reasonable to say that we are loving and caring people, that we really wouldn’t hurt anyone at all.  And yet, when there are problems in society, we have to look closely to understand how much we participate in the problem.

There is a group that’s not afraid to lay what happened to Matthew Shepard at our doorstep.  The pastor of Westborough Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, the Reverend Fred Phelps, is ready to stand up and say that all gays are going to hell, no questions asked.  He believes that our role as Christians is to fight them every single step of the way.  If you want to see some evil,go on the internet and look for the page that is www.godhatesfags.  If you want hate, you will find it there.  These self proclaimed “Christians” stand and condemn homosexuals, not accepting that they are children of God, loved by God as each and every one of us are.  Rev. Phelps says, “It’s too late to rescue Matthew Shepard from the life of sin and shame to which he was lured by the perverted, depraved and decadent American society into which he was born.  All who say, ‘It’s o.k. to be gay.’, have the blood of Matthew and millions more on their hands.”  Rev. Phelps is the one who organized members of his congregation to go by bus from Topeka, Kansas to Laramie, Wyoming to protest at Matthew Shepard’s funeral, to condemn him and all gays.  Rev. Phelps said Matthew Shepard’s blood is on our hands if we show any understanding or acceptance or love for those who are gay.

If you still want to argue that there is nothing we can do, listen:  Washington State Representative, Ed Murray, a Democrat from Seattle, took part in a vigil that was staged here in Seattle.  He said he’s received dozens of phone calls from people reporting harassment based on sexual orientation.  He plans to reintroduce a safe school bill in the upcoming session that would require schools to train staff and students about the criminal penalties for hate crimes.  He says that where this kind of behavior starts is in the school and he goes on to say that anyone who says that he didn’t grow up using slurs for gay people isn’t telling the truth.

I know it’s true for me.  If you wore a yellow shirt on Thursday, you called a “queer” or a “fag.”  The words of insult had to do with sexual orientation that we never even understood.  That wasn’t just twenty or thirty years ago.  The same thing goes on today because I’ve heard children throwing gay insults back and forth.

In the sixties posters proclaimed that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.  It’s not just enough for us to say that we are nice people.  It’s not enough for us to say that if a gay person comes to worship, we will certainly welcome that person.  If we believe that our God is a God of love, then we need to be willing to express that love.  There are lots of Christians who will go to Scripture and point out a half dozen or so verses and say, “Look, it says here that homosexuality is a sin.”  But, they pick and choose Scripture and twist it for their own meaning. 

Two summers ago, I preached the whole summer about the ways that the Bible can be used and abused to support or deny all sorts of things in our society and it’s very clear that you can use the Bible to support whatever position you would like to support.  The truth of the matter is, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality.  More than that, Jesus was a person of love.  When the woman who was an adulterer was going to be stoned to death, Jesus said, “Whoever is without sin, throw the first stone.”  The crowd evaporated.  Jesus spent time with those who were known to be sinners; with prostitutes, with the poor, and with the tax collectors.  He knew that God’s love was most important for these people who are on the fringes of society.

At Redmond High School, it has been dangerous in the past to be a gay young person.  Just this year, the Student Council finally approved the gay and lesbian group as an official after school club so that young people can provide support for each other.  Homosexuality is not something that people would choose just because they want to be different.  It’s very clear for many people who follow a gay lifestyle that their orientation is something they were born with.  This is how God has created them.  How dare we stand and point a finger of condemnation.

I received an e-mail this past week from a young man in Bellingham attending Western Washington University.  He first asked if there was an affiliate of the Interfaith Alliance in Bellingham.  Then he asked if there was any congregation that was “open and affirming,” that would welcome a gay young man into their worship service.  I looked at the web page of our First Congregational Church in Bellingham.  They have not yet voted to be an open and affirming congregation, but their Statement of Faith makes it very clear that they welcome people from all different walks of life, to share together their faith.  I quickly e-mailed him and suggested that he be in contact with the pastors there.  He replied, thanking me for the information and saying it would be so wonderful to be able to go to a church where he wouldn’t be despised and called sick for who he was.

Our church began to consider the designation of “open and affirming” a number of years ago.  In the turmoil of those years, it stopped short of coming to any decision.  In the United Church of Christ, there are congregations across the country, many of them here in the Seattle area, who have voted themselves publicly to be “open and affirming congregations,” congregations that welcome gays and lesbians, bi-sexual and transgendered people, as children of God, deserving of their love and welcomed in their congregations.

I think it’s again time for us to begin this process, to begin talking together about our feelings.  I know that there are deeply held feelings and many of you may not agree with me.  But it is time for us to remember that our faith calls us to love others as ourselves.  God’s love calls us to bring those who are despised and on the edges, into the life of our church, to share with them, fully, as sisters and brothers in Christ.  I hope that we will soon take up the process of looking at “open and affirming” and that we will be brave  enough to take a stand and speak out and prove that all Christians are not hateful and judgmental.  I hope we will be among those Christians who are willing to love their sisters and brothers.

May God’s spirit be with us as we celebrate Children’s Sabbath this day.  Amen.